From Viking raids to Olympic parades

Paris’ River Seine gears up for the Olympic Games.

The setting for the first-ever outdoor Olympic Games opening ceremony and the venue for most water events, the Seine River in the French capital, Paris, is playing a crucial role in the upcoming event, which will be held from 26th July to 11th August, and rightly so: it’s the throughline for many critical moments in French history.

Firstly, the importance of the Olympic Games for France can vary depending on national pride, sporting achievements, and economic impact. Typically, the Olympics allow France to showcase its athletic talent globally, bolstering its reputation as a sporting nation. 

Additionally, hosting the Olympic Games can provide significant economic benefits through tourism, infrastructure development, and international exposure. Therefore, the next Olympic Games could be crucial for France in terms of sporting success and financial gains.

The famous Seine River was once the waterway the Vikings sailed up with their longboats to torch Rouen and eventually lay waste to Paris in the 9th century. It also played a role during World War II, when Allied forces bombed most of the bridges along its banks ahead of the D-Day landings and, with them, the eventual liberation of Western Europe.

The river’s beauty inspired several prominent artists, like Claude Monet, arguably one of France’s most prominent impressionists. Along its numerous crossings are locks inscribed by couples inspired by the Seine scene before them. A cruise along the Seine is on most people’s Paris wish lists. But people have not been able to bathe in its waters since the 17th century.

Although beautiful, the Seine is a working river: 20 million tonnes of goods, everything from grain to IKEA furniture, are transported along the river every year. This doesn’t make for the cleanest conditions for recreation or sport. However, that’s about to change for the Games. If it’s sanitised on time, open-water swimming events and the triathlon will be hosted in its waters. Reports suggest that it might not be ready ahead of the Games.

If all goes according to plan, the traditional opening parade for the Games, which is set to take place in boats over the Seine on 26th July, will be the first time a summer Olympics has opened outside the main athletics stadium. Athletes will float down almost six kilometres of the Seine. Due to security concerns, this presents a challenge for the administration. France is currently on its highest terrorism alert level. 

Behind the romantic veneer Paris has long curated, mounting security concerns have already impacted the unprecedented open-air event. In January, amid security and other organisational worries, the French government slashed the crowd size for the opening ceremony to around 320,000, which is half the 600,000 that the French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin had suggested in 2022. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo expressed confidence in the security plans, designed with potential terrorist threats in mind from the beginning.

The whole idea of a spectacular open-air parade with hundreds of boats has given cold sweats to many in the French security establishment because of the difficulty of controlling the crowds and the risk of terror attacks. For several days leading up to the events, a whole area of Paris will be marked as a protected zone and closed to everyone, including cars, that do not have a specific QR code to pass through. Airspace around Paris and all its airports will be closed for the day of the opening ceremony. On the ground, 45,000 police officers will be deployed, roughly ten times their regular presence on Parisian streets.

It is also worth mentioning that the authorities have also needed help persuading historic Parisian booksellers who line the river to temporarily remove their kiosks to make space for spectators.

If things don’t look good, there is a Plan B: holding the opening ceremony in Trocadero Square or in the Stade de France, the national stadium. Of course, security is not just for the beginning of the Games; thousands of police will ensure people stay safe.

Illustration: Handout Florian Hulleu, Paris 2024, AFP

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