Seine suspense as Paris count down begins

Opening ceremony could be jeopardised as river is too dirty for sport

AFP June 25, 2024
Triathlon athlete dives in the Seine river in this file photo, with The Eiffel Tower in the background. A number of pre-Olympics swimming events had to be cancelled here due to excessive pollution in the river which jeopardises the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics 2024. PHOTO: AFP


The river Seine is set to be a star feature of the Paris Olympics, but heavy rain, pollution and security fears mean there is still suspense around its role just one month out from the start.

A spectacular July 26 opening ceremony has been planned along the famed waterway -- the first time a summer Games has begun outside the main stadium -- and it will also host open-water swimming and a leg of the triathlon.

But with the clock ticking down, the river is currently flowing too fast for rehearsals and is too dirty for sport.

With currents unusually strong, organisers cancelled the first full practice session for the opening ceremony scheduled for Monday involving all 85 river boats which will carry athletes along a six-kilometre (four mile) route.

“If the flow is too fast, it will pose a serious problem for the opening ceremony,” hydrologist Jean-Marie Mouchel told AFP.

After weeks of unusually wet weather, the Seine is high up its banks, with its flow measured at 500 m3/second (18,000 ft3/second) last Friday -- around four to five times higher than its usual level in the summer months.

The heavy rain in May and June has also caused major pollution problems.

French authorities have spent 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in the last decade trying to clean up the river by improving the Paris sewerage system, as well as building new water treatment and storage facilities.

But major storms still overwhelm the waste water network, some of which dates back to the 19th century, leading to discharges of untreated sewage directly into the river.

Test results published last Friday showed levels of E. Coli -- a bacteria indicating faecal matter -- were often twice as high as the maximum permitted limit for Olympic swimming during the week of 10-16 June.

“There’s no doubt that the water quality is not there yet,” the top government official for the Paris region, Marc Guillaume, told reporters, while remaining optimistic that dry summer weather would resolve the problem.

The latest readings “are not in line with the standards we will have in the summer,” he added.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who wants to create public swimming spots in the river next year, had to postpone a much-publicised dip to demonstrate its cleanliness on Sunday.

She has promised to take to the water during the week of July 14.

The opening ceremony is also still giving members of France’s security forces sleepless nights, given the number of people involved and the difficulty in securing such a large area.

A total of 326,000 people will have tickets to watch the river parade, with hundreds of thousands of others set to spectate from balconies and open windows.

The number of buildings overlooking the river complicates the security operation at a time of heightened fears about terrorism, leading to opposition in the past from senior policing figures.

Snipers will be positioned on the top of every building in the immediate vicinity, with a total of 45,000 security forces set to be deployed.

“The opening ceremony is what’s worrying us the most,” one senior police figure told AFP recently on condition of anonymity.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ