Paris Olympics countdown begins with expected complications, security and rights concerns

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By John J. Metzler, August 7, 2023

PARIS — The one-year countdown for the opening of the Paris Summer Olympics has begun.

The return of the Olympics to France is largely met with eager anticipation for this international sporting extravaganza, but is equally tempered by the usual security concerns, political controversies, and yes, the legendary Parisian traffic.

When the 2024 Summer Games open on July 26th next year, it shall mark the centenary of the Olympics held in Paris in 1924. A century ago, only 44 nations participated in the Paris games; Today there are expected to be nearly 200 participant countries according to the International Olympic Committee.

The Olympic opening ceremony will take place not in a stadium but rather along the River Seine which winds through Paris passing spectacular monuments and bridges. ‘/ Getty Images

Equally the Paris Olympics are following in the wake of the cancelled Tokyo Olympics scheduled for 2020, but suspended by the global Covid-19 pandemic, and then fitfully restarted a year later with little enthusiasm and limited spectators.

Now the French capital holds the grand stage to host the largest Olympics in modern times with thousands of athletes, millions of fans not to mention the global media extravaganza.

The French really know how to present a spectacle of light, sound and animation. One has only to look at the glittering light shows on the Eiffel Tower nightly to see that is but a taste of what is to come for the ceremonies.

The Olympic opening ceremony will take place not in a stadium but rather along the River Seine which winds through Paris passing spectacular monuments and bridges. The ceremony highlights the parade of athletes held on the Seine, with boats for each national team. This Neo-Pharaonic spectacle shall sail through the city center for four miles, while 10,500 athletes will be viewed along the way by over 600,000 spectators.

Among 28 Olympic sports, four new sports have been added to the roster including Skateboarding and Surfing. But there’s no surfing the waves on the River Seine in Paris so that shall take place in faraway French Tahiti.

Sporting venues inside and around Paris are set among the monuments and grandeur of the City of Light as a spectacular backdrop.

Naturally such grandiose plans in an area as historic and urban as the French capital are going to get some pushback. The roads and esplanades along the river are shared in many places by the venerable bookseller stalls which have their outdoor shops literally along the river. More than 200 “bouquinistes,” who comprise the largest open-air book market in Europe, are opposing municipal plans to move the bookstalls which are fastened to walls along the banks of the Seine. Jerome Callais, head of the Paris Booksellers’ Cultural Association, which represents 88 percent of bouquinistes, said they had “no intention of moving” according to the news site France24.  The riverside secondhand book and poster stall tradition goes back hundreds of years.

Naturally the unspoken word concerning an Olympiad, especially in a city such as Paris, remains the risk of terrorism or extremist demonstrations.  Paris sadly has seen both with major Islamic jihadi attacks as recently as November 2015 and serious and sometimes violent demonstrations over the past year.  Given this sober reality there’s the need to balance access and image with prudence and safety to protect athletes and spectators.

While security shall be exceptional and warranted there’s a new concern over widespread camera technology which is linked to yet unspecified Artificial Intelligence (AI) gathering capacity.

“We are not China; we do not want to be Big Brother,” says one Paris-based AI entrepreneur bidding for an Olympics video surveillance contract. French law explicitly rules out using facial recognition technology, as China uses, to monitor suspicious individuals, but rights advocates fear possible government overreach.

Though the cost of the upcoming Paris Games is slated at about $8 billion, that’s lower than London in 2012, and funding is shared between governmental and private sources.  Sadly, corruption concerning contracts have also shadowed the games. Moreover, Olympiads throughout recent history have been plagued by cost overruns leaving a financial legacy of debt sometimes decades after the events.

Naturally there are the controversies over some participants. Given Putin’s war in Ukraine, will Russia’s official team be permitted to participate? How will China bully or coerce any team from Taiwan? The International Olympic Committee hasn’t decided if athletes from Russia may compete in Paris.

A bit of history. Ireland was given formal recognition as an independent state for the Paris Olympics in 1924, and it was at these games that Ireland made its first appearance in the Games as an independent nation.

Now the Clock is ticking for Paris 2024.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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