Volleyball at the Eiffel Tower: Paris begins Olympic makeover

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Volleyball at the Eiffel Tower: Paris begins Olympic makeover

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At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, tourists have lately found a new addition to the timeless vistas of Paris: the metal stands and sand of a temporary beach volleyball stadium, ready for the Olympics.

Similar works are sprouting up at other city monuments — the grand backdrop for the summer games that start on July 26. The dash to the finish line will see organisers build eight temporary venues, or the equivalent of a roughly 70,000 seat stadium, in just four months.

Skateboarders and breakdancers will compete at Place de la Concorde, archers will let their arrows fly at Les Invalides, while equestrians will saddle up at the palace of Versailles.

Workers build the Eiffel Tower Stadium © Guillaume Baptiste/AFP/Getty Images
A rendering of what the beach volleyball at the Eiffel Tower will look like
It will host the beach volleyball and men’s blind football competitions © Paris 2024

Holding many events in temporary venues embedded in the historic centre — as well as an extravagant outdoor opening ceremony involving a 200-boat parade on the Seine — is all part of the high risk, high reward bet made back in 2017 when Paris was bidding for the Olympics.

Organisers pitched a greener event using mostly existing infrastructure and temporary sites in keeping with the spirit of the Paris climate agreement. They promised to halve the carbon emissions versus the earlier London and Rio games, including by recruiting famous French chefs to design menus with locally sourced food and less meat.

With all its logistical challenges, the plan looks set to be an incredible display of French panache or terrible hubris. The risk of terror attacks is high, and the expected 15mn visitors may overwhelm the creaking public transport system.

Map showing where Paris will hold events at historic monuments

Tony Estanguet, who heads the Paris organising committee, brushes such concerns aside with the confidence of a three-time gold medallist in canoe slalom.

“Of course we haven’t taken the easy route but simplicity is not our objective — daring, beauty and success are, with crazy images that the country can be proud of,” he exclaimed in a December interview. “The disruptive aspects of these games make these the revolutionary edition, à la française.”

The Seine river that curves through the city is also set to have a central role, both in the opening ceremony and as a venue for marathon swimming and the swimming leg of the triathlon.

Athletes dive into the waters of the River Seine at the Alexander III Bridge ahead of triathlon test races in August 2023
Athletes dive into the waters of the River Seine at the Alexander III bridge during triathlon test races in August 2023 © Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

To clean-up the river, Paris has launched a €1.4bn infrastructure push to build water treatment plants and a massive underground storage tank to prevent sewage and pollutants from overflowing into the river when it rains.

If it were to rain heavily it could still overwhelm the new, untested equipment, and there is no back-up plan for the events if the water does not meet safety standards in tests. “We’re feeling really confident,” said Pierre Rabadan, the Paris deputy mayor for sports. “The works are nearly done and water testing will begin next month.” 

Usually political rivals, President Emmanuel Macron and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo have vowed to swim in the Seine before the games in what will be an excellent, if chilly, photo opportunity. 

The diving boards and pool at the Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis
The Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis is one of only two permanent new venues built for Paris 2024 © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

With the opening ceremony some 90 days away, the preparations are becoming ever more visible. The Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis, one of the only two permanent venues to have been built, was recently inaugurated and features an environmentally friendly curved wooden exterior.

The Olympic flame arrives in Marseille via boat from Greece on May 8 and starts its national tour, passing the greatest hits of French tourism from the Alps and the châteaux of the Loire valley to the vineyards of Bordeaux. It will even jet over to overseas territories like Tahiti, where the Olympic surfing competition will be held. 

Using Paris as a giant Olympics venue will bring plenty of headaches for residents and visitors, so officials have unveiled extremely detailed early plans to advise them on getting around. Pedestrians and cyclists will need to register for special QR codes to access secured zones around the venues. 

Paris Olympic Countdown Clock, at Port de la Bourdonnais,
The Paris Olympics Countdown Clock at Port de la Bourdonnais, near the beams of the Eiffel Tower © Bruno Fert/FT
Kauli Vaast rides a wave at Teahupo’o in Tahiti, French Polynesia
The surfing events will take place in Tahiti, French Polynesia © Jerome Brouillet/AFP/Getty Images

The opening ceremony on July 26 will probably be the most disruptive moment: from a week before, a large perimeter on both banks of the river along the 6km route will be shut down. Most cars will be barred once the last temporary stands go up, and several bridges across the Seine are due to close. 

A tighter inner perimeter will be even harder to penetrate in the run-up to the Seine extravaganza, Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez warned. “We’ll be opening car boots and doing very, very detailed searches,” he told reporters. 

Some Parisians have turned worrying about the Olympics into an extreme sport, with vigorous debate over whether the narrow balconies on many Haussmann-era buildings along the Seine can bear the weight of opening ceremony crowds.

Officials, meanwhile, have urged people to relax. “People should use common sense,” said Nuñez.

A rendering of the skate park at Place de la Concorde
Place de la Concorde will host urban sports such as BMX freestyle, breaking, skateboarding and basketball © Paris 2024
A worker at the Place de la Concorde Urban Park site
Concerts, exhibitions and sports demonstrations will also take place at the Place de la Concorde Urban Park © Bruno Fert/FT

There will also be challenges for tourists trying to visit central attractions such as the Louvre museum, which is near several competition sites and the river. Police said they would try to create corridors to allow the museum to remain open for visitors. 

At the same time, officials are trying to keeping the tone light, casting the security measures as a means to ensure Paris can become one big party. 

“It’s the event of a lifetime. We really wanted to share it, to share this city with people,” Hidalgo said.

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