This is Mike Rowbottom’s second column on the complexities of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Paris 2024 – shining a light on the darkest places
This week in London Etienne Thobois, chief executive of the Paris 2024 Games, has been talking all things Olympic – and Paralympic – for the benefit of gathered British scribes.
Not unnaturally, Monsieur Thobois was keen to spread good news about the coming sportfest in the French capital.
Diplomatically and doubtless genuinely, he doffed his cap to the “inspiring” London 2012 Olympics and spoke of his hopes that Paris would deliver “a spectacular Games.”
Gender-parity – tick. Ticket sales – tick. Medallists catwalk at the Eiffel Tower fan zone – tick.
But the question was asked, as it must be. Inevitably.
Since the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, organisers of the Games have had to accommodate ever more costly and elaborate safety measures.
For the Paris 2024 organisers, in this necessary arena, the memories are still painfully fresh of the disaster that oh-so-nearly happened at the 2022 UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid at the Stade de France – in the Saint-Denis area of the city that will form the centrepiece of this year’s Games.
There was huge and justified criticism of the tactics and attitude of the French police, with supporters, in the main part patient and orderly Liverpool supporters, being crowded into chaotic and potentially fatal situations, with many being gratuitously tear-gassed.
It was, verily, a debacle.
The need for something very different to take place during the Paris 2024 Games is something of which organisers have been painfully aware ever since.
“Everything went wrong that night,” Thobois said.
“It was a wake-up call and we’ve all learnt from that. The security set-up in Paris will be unprecedented.
“There is not one building that hasn’t been scrutinised. We’re making sure what happened that night will never happen again.”
Those charged with the task of trying to ensure that each quadrennial international gathering proceeds in safety are in an unenviable position.
If anybody needed reminding that the worst-case scenario is always the one to have in mind in such circumstances, the pipe bombing at the Atlanta Games of 1996 – which resulted in the death of two individuals and left 111 injured – refocused the collective gaze.
After that device had exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park in the early hours of July 27, I made my way from my press accommodation to the centre of the city, trying to interview any witnesses I could encounter.
Would I have been smarter simply to stay put and feed off the fully professional, on-the-spot reporting of CNN? Probably. But I spoke to two people who had been close to the incident, which had taken place after a late-night concert, and their faces were still blank with shock as they described the sights and sounds of the blast.
Six years after Atlanta, the Olympic world returned to the United States for the Salt Lake Winter Games – which took place just three raw months after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. What had happened in lower Manhattan on that sunny September morning was present in everyone’s mind as the Games approached.
Each morning in my hotel, I breakfasted in front of a huge mural depicting a fireman raising a Stars and Stripes flag above the rubble of Ground Zero, after the iconic photo of GIs raising the US flag following the bloody Second World War victory in Iwo Jima.
As I queued for the Opening Ceremony at the Rice-Eccles stadium, where the tattered Stars and Stripes flag recovered from Ground Zero was due to be carried into the stadium and hoisted, symbolically, alongside the Olympic flag, I momentarily felt my stomach grip with apprehension.
As with any Olympic opening, the occasion was an epicentre of world attention. President Bush was attending. Sting was due to sing a duet with Yo-Yo-Ma. Meanwhile, twin thoughts were duetting in my own head: this is the most dangerous place in the world; this is the safest place in the world.
Thankfully, the second thought turned out to be accurate – as one might expect of a $300 million (£192 million/€224 million) security operation involving some 16,000 police and military officers – roughly six officials for every competitor.
The bold Paris 2024 plans bringing the Olympic Opening Ceremony to the River Seine and the Paralympic Opening Ceremony to the Place de la Concorde are in line with what is best about the modern Games – the desire to share and celebrate.
Please, God, that optimism will be allowed to shine, torch-like.