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With less than 50 days to go, is Paris ready for the 2024 Olympics?

PARIS — Les Bouquinistes have been selling their secondhand books by the Seine since the 1500s. Through revolutions and World War II, they kept their stalls open. Their little green boxes, containing old paperback copies of Victor Hugo and faded editions of “Le Petit Journal,” line both sides of the river which runs through the heart of Paris. They are part of the city’s tapestry — a reminder of its cultural and literary significance.

So when the 240 or so booksellers were told they were going to have to remove the boxes and stop selling their books to make way for spectators attending the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, they weren’t going to step aside.

“They told us we had to move our boxes,” one bookseller, who preferred to remain anonymous, told ESPN in French last week. “And so we told them to f— off.”

The Hotel de Ville near his stall was caked in Olympics paraphernalia; lampposts lining the nearby Champs-Élysées carried Paris 2024 branding. But amid it all, Paris’ traditional roots remained firmly embedded.

In the end, intervention from President Emmanuel Macron was needed, alongside a receptive local organizing committee. He helped the booksellers, calling them part of the “living heritage of the capital.” The government let them remain, and reduced the audience capacity for the opening ceremony.

“We had a dialogue with them to understand their concerns, and in the end a solution was found,” Lambis Konstantinidis, the director of planning and coordination for Paris 2024, told ESPN.

That’s just a microcosm of what the Olympic organizers have had to navigate. But with the start of the Games less than two months away, Paris is ready.

On July 26, the world’s focus will be on the Seine. It’ll be a historic moment: The first Olympic Games opening ceremony taking place outside of a stadium. It promises to be spectacular. Approximately 10,500 athletes will float down a four-mile stretch of the river from Pont d’Austerlitz to the Pont d’Iéna, on 104 boats, all ending up outside the Eiffel Tower.

The journey will be just 45 minutes, but it has taken years to plan it, just like other areas of the Games. Hosting an Olympics is far from straightforward, and the Seine itself neatly bridges myriad issues organizers have had to overcome to put on these Olympics: There are concerns over security, logistics and athlete safety.

“I think you’re in for the show of the century,” Konstantinidis said.

THOUGH THE OPENING CEREMONY will take place over a small stretch in the heart of Paris, it requires a complex security operation. The Seine is 481 miles long, flowing from just north of Dijon, through Paris, and into the English Channel at Le Havre. It’s a big area to monitor, and the original plans would have seen 600,000 spectators attend. That’s since changed to 326,000 (104,000 standing alongside the river, 222,000 on raised banks) or so — with tickets allocated rather than open to the public.

They’ve got other restrictions in place — Paris’ airspace will be shut for five hours on the opening night of the Games. Those living on houseboats are limited to having 12 people at their home on the night of the ceremony. Warnings have gone out to those who live along the Seine to restrict the number of people on their balconies, amid fears the old buildings won’t be able to manage big parties. And access to that area will be prohibited the week before, with residents needing QR codes to get through security.

They’re ready for drone attacks — having helped handle this potential threat at the Qatar World Cup — and helicopters were seen in the last week of May flying low through Paris, even through the legs of the Eiffel Tower, in preparation for the summer.

Then there’s the weather. Two opening ceremony rehearsals were postponed — the first on April 8, and the second on May 27, due to poor weather and high-water levels.

This all prompted discussions over whether there’s a simpler solution. Macron said in April there was a plan B and plan C if needed. “We are preparing them in parallel, we will analyze this in real time,” he said.

Plan B would see the ceremony “limited to the Trocadéro,” an area around the Eiffel Tower, according to Macron. The third contingency would see the whole party go back to the traditional option of holding it in a stadium, in this case the 80,000-capacity Stade de France.

THERE ARE OTHER concerns regarding the river. Swimming in the Seine was banned in Paris in 1923 due to water quality, but just over a century on, and the Olympics are planning to use it for triathlon and open-water swimming. The scheduled pre-Olympics swimming event was canceled last summer due to sewage problems, and a recent test from water charity Surfrider showed levels of E. coli higher than permitted levels set by sports federations.

But Paris has been working on it. To help tackle the problem, Mayor Anne Hidalgo approved a $1.5 billion plan in 2017 to clean the river. Vast subterranean storage basins capable of holding 46,000 cubic meters of wastewater, with a depth of 30 meters and a diameter of 50 meters, have been built next to Austerlitz metro station. They hope this will collect rainwater and prevent any untreated sewage from overflowing into the river. They’ve also invested in the antiquated sewage system.

“Cleaning the Seine is something that has been discussed in this country, in this city for decades. And this is finally happening.”

Lambis Konstantinidis, director of planning and coordination for Paris 2024

On June 23, Hidalgo will swim in the Seine in a show of support for the initiative.

But that’s not to say the athletes are enthused. Ana Marcela Cunha, the reigning women’s marathon 10-kilometer Olympic gold medalist, is concerned. “We need a plan B in case it’s not possible to swim in the Seine,” Cunha told AFP in March. “It’s not a question of erasing the history of the Seine. We know what the Pont Alexandre III and the Eiffel Tower represent but I think that the health of the athletes must come first. The Seine is not made for swimming.”

Officials are adamant the water quality will be suitable for athletes. “We are on time,” Marc Guillaume, prefect of the Paris region, said in April. “The beginning of the Games will coincide with water quality allowing competition. That’s a tremendous collective success.”

There are also plans to build 26 new freshwater, cordoned-off swimming pools in the Seine to make swimming safer from boat traffic — four in the center of Paris which should open in 2025.

“Cleaning the Seine is something that has been discussed in this country, in this city for decades, ” Konstantinidis said. “And this is finally happening. Of course, with the amount of rainfall we’ve had the past month and lack of sunshine that is not helping the results that we’ve seen in May. But with those infrastructure projects coming to fruition and now the weather becoming what it should be in the summer, we’re extremely confident in our capacity to deliver the triathlon and open water swimming as planned. It’s going as we expect.”

FURTHER AFIELD, THERE are other water-based controversies. This year, the surfing will not be in France, nor even Europe. It’s held in Tahiti. The construction of a judge’s tower in Teahupo’o drew anger from local communities, fearing it would damage the coral reef. Plans changed. There would be no flushing toilets on the tower, and some of the foundations were adjusted to minimize the impact.

The decision to take surfing to Tahiti was to include overseas-based French territories. The competition will also be spread throughout the country here, with grounds in Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille, Nice, Saint-Etienne and Lyon hosting football matches. Sailing will take place in Marseille at the marina on the Mediterranean, while shooting will be at the Chateauroux Shooting Centre, a venue 273 kilometers to the south of Paris. Preliminary stages of the basketball and handball will be in Lille.

Within Paris, there’s a spread of venues from east to west, north to south. Like London 2012, which focused on regenerating the east of the city, the efforts in 2024 are anchored on the Saint-Denis region. That’s where the Olympic Village will be housed, across a 52-acre plot, complete with a nursery facility for parents and children, for the first time.

After the Games, the area will be handed over, to make 2,800 apartments — with roofs built in a way to be insect and bird-friendly — while there will also be two schools built on the site and 8,000 new trees planted. As of the start of June, they’re still putting the finishing touches on the Village. There are beds installed, complete with Olympics-branded duvet covers — but they’re still putting up the various branding on the buildings.

The organizers have been focused on rejuvenating old stadiums and facilities and using temporary structures, rather than building new vast stadiums which end up being white elephants, as seen in Rio 2016. Ninety-five percent are either existing venues or temporary structures, all geared toward minimizing their carbon footprint. The target is to reduce carbon emissions by 50% compared to London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Using existing venues has meant they are all plugged directly into the electricity grid in Paris, rather than needing diesel-powered generators. There are new pop-up plug sockets in Paris to help minimize the footprint, which will remain after the Games. There’s also no air conditioning in the Olympic Village — instead, the rooms use a water-cooling system which maintains the temperature around 8 degrees cooler than outside. The medal podiums are made of 100% recycled wood and plastic.

There are a couple of new venues: The Adidas Arena at Porte de la Chapelle (called the Porte de la Chapelle Arena for the Games) and the Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis. And the Stade de France has had a makeover for the Olympics. It was last used during the 2023 Rugby World Cup, and now has a purple running track.

“The look of the Games includes three colors for all the competition venues: blue, green and purple,” said Alain Bondel, sports manager for athletics at Paris 2024. “We decided on this purple track with different tones: lighter for the track, darker for the service areas, and gray for the turns at the end of the bend, reminding of the ash-colored tracks that were there 100 years ago for the Olympic Games Paris 1924.”

Last year, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF) president Lord Sebastian Coe strongly criticized the high ticket Olympic prices, but 8.6 million tickets have been sold. New batches are released every Thursday running up to the Games, and most events are sold out. Football still has a few left.

A Parisian taxi driver named Houcem told ESPN he’d been saving for a couple of years to be able to afford to take his wife and two daughters to see a day of swimming competition. The tickets were €829 (about $895) each, but he said he wasn’t sure when they’d next have such a competition on their doorstep.

A COUPLE OF THREATS remain on the organizers’ radar. Ensuring the security of the Games is a huge operation, with the latest figures in March suggesting there will be 18,000 troops deployed in the Paris region, and 35,000 security personnel — up to 45,000 for the opening ceremony. There are river and air forces also being deployed.

Other countries in Europe are sending help as well. Poland is providing sniffer dogs and troops, while Britain and Germany are offering the help of their police officers, as well as specialist anti-terrorism guidance, as Paris braces itself to have 5 million extra visitors on top of the 10 million tourists who usually flock to the capital at this time of year. The threat of a cyberattack is also at the forefront of their minds.

“The Games are facing an unprecedented level of threat, but we’ve also done an unprecedented amount of preparation work, so I think we’re a step ahead of the attackers,” Vincent Strubel, the director general of French national agency for information security (ANSSI), told reporters in May.

“There are many threats in the world today, and Paris is a city which has already experienced attacks,” Hidalgo said in an interview with Time Magazine in May. “Like [in] all open democratic cities, security is a very serious question. We always consider the fact that those who want to harm us spread fear. They should not prevent us from wanting to live. You can choose to be paralyzed by fear. But you can also choose to say, ‘Well, since we are threatened, security will be in place.’ The Games are the first global event of brotherhood, after all, in a world where there are lots of wars.”

The security operations are already on high alert. On May 31, French authorities announced they had charged an 18-year-old of plotting a “violent action” on behalf of the Islamic State group’s jihadist ideology against spectators attending football matches at the Olympics.

Organizers are also wary of protests and strikes disrupting the flow of the competition. The body in charge of Paris transport has been on renewable strike — effectively threatening to strike at any moment — over pay and working conditions since February. There have also been issues with rubbish collectors going on strike. Organizers are confident, however, as has been the case in previous major sporting events held in France like the 2023 Rugby World Cup, any strike action will be delayed mid competition. They have held ongoing discussions with the relevant trade unions.

Locals are concerned about the traffic in Paris, with many restrictions in place around the venues in the middle of the city during the Games. Daily life will be jolted and there were posters put up in metro stations earlier in the year advising people to work from home when possible during the Olympics. Several metro stations will also be closed during the Games, with Line 6 and Line 9 most affected, while on the night of the opening ceremony, the entire area will be in lockdown.

“There’s no going around the fact that everybody will have to adapt a bit of their behaviors, but we are trying to engage,” Konstantinidis said. “We have been for months trying to engage with the residents of these areas because we want them to be on our side.”

ON MAY 8, the Olympic flame arrived in France. It made the trip from Greece on a three-masted ship called Belem, which had its maiden voyage in 1896. Olympic gold medalist Florent Manaudou, who won the 50-meter freestyle in 2012, carried the flame onto French soil.

There were 150,000 spectators or so there to greet the flame, with 1,000 boats positioned along the route into port. French rapper Jul lit the Paris 2024 cauldron.

“It marks the end of preparations — the Games arrive in the life of the French people. The flame is here. We can be proud,” said Macron.

On Friday, a display of the five Olympic rings was mounted on the Eiffel Tower to mark 50 days until the start of the Games. Paris is on target to be ready. Already, the shops are packed with Olympic memorabilia. The mascot Phryge is omnipresent around the middle of town. Some restaurants are decked out in flags from around the world. And all this against the backdrop of Paris, with Les Bouquinistes’ green boxes lining the Seine.

“You should expect extraordinary performances against iconic venues,” Konstantinidis said. “The spectators should expect to live the Parisian experience. So for these Olympics and for the Paralympics, there will be stunning venues, and a phenomenal opening ceremony, with extraordinary athletes, who will have one of the most beautiful cities in the world at their feet.”

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