2024 Paris Olympics

Paris Olympics: River Seine pollution could cancel triathlon swimming

The Olympics president said the swimming section of the triathlon could be nixed if officials cannot reduce pollution levels in the filthy waterway.

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It is supposed to be the unique centerpiece of Paris 2024: swimming events held in the river Seine thanks to an environmental rejuvenation for this romantic but polluted waterway.

This week that aspiration was dealt a filthy reality check.

The president of the Olympics has admitted that the triathlon swimming section could be postponed or canceled if pollution levels are still too high. His comments came after a French charity warned that bacteria, including “pollution of fecal origin,” was far higher in the river than permitted with a little over 100 days to go.

This despite France spending 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) on upgrading the city’s antiquated sewage system, which discharges waste into the river during periods of heavy rainfall.

“We can postpone for rainy conditions,” Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet said during a conference in Birmingham, England, on Tuesday. Despite saying he was “confident that it will be possible to use the Seine,” he admitted that there could be “a final decision where we could not swim — it’s part of the rules of the International Federation. It’s what we want to avoid, of course.”

Asked for comment, the International Olympic Committee said that Estanguet was only restating the rules laid out by World Triathlon. The governing body says the event can be made into a duathlon — just running and cycling, no swimming — or canceled if the water is too polluted.

“We are working hard on it. You know it’s one of the bigger challenges,” Estanguet told reporters at the SportAccord conference. “When we decided to have this competition in the Seine we knew it will be a big challenge. But with the authorities there is a big program of investment and, when we talk about legacy, this project is fantastic.”

Last August, the test marathon swimming event was canceled because the Seine failed pollution tests.

As well as the triathlon, the river is also set to be used in marathon swimming and paratriathlon events, and play host to a flotilla-based opening ceremony.

It’s part of an ambitious plan to open up the river to public swimmers by 2025, something that’s been illegal for 100 years because of the dangerously high pollution levels. Doing so has meant vastly altering Paris’ sewage system, including a 13 million-gallon overflow tank called the Austerlitz Basin.

Both French President Emmanuel Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo have promised to take a dip in the waters to prove their cleanliness.

However, critics have accused officials of unnecessarily jeopardizing one of the Olympics’ iconic sports by trying to hold it in the Seine — no doubt an iconic showcase for both city and event.

Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil, the gold medal winner of the Tokyo 2020 women’s marathon 10-kilometer swim (6.2 miles), told the AFP news agency last month that “we need a plan B in case it’s not possible to swim in the Seine,” adding that “the Seine is not made for swimming.”

A day before Estanguet made the remarks about the triathlon, the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation Europe also raised the alarm.

On 10 days from September to March, it took samples from the Pont de l’Alma and the Pont Alexandre III, where the events are due to be held. It found that tests on only two of these days met World Triathlon standards for two types of fecal bacteria: enterococci and escherichia coli.

On eight of the 10 days, e.coli levels were at least double the permitted level. And on one day they were almost four times too high, it said.

“We are therefore genuinely concerned about the health of athletes,” the foundation said, alleging that the measures implemented by city and regional governments were either unclear or insufficient.

In response to the Surfrider study, the city of Paris said in a statement that it was an inaccurate picture because the Seine will only be swimmable during the summer, but the samples were taken during rainier months when pollution is more likely. Furthermore, it has not yet brought online the Austerlitz Basin, due to be inaugurated May 2, it said.

“We are surprised” by the time frame of the study, the city said in a statement. “The Seine is not intended to accommodate swimmers from mid-September to June” for “safety reasons.”

Though Paris is notoriously polluted, it is far from the first Olympic triathlon water course to come under scrutiny ahead of the Games.

The venue at Tokyo 2020 was accused of smelling “like a toilet,” and organizers tipped almost 800,000 cubic feet of sand into the water in an attempt to attract naturally cleansing organisms.

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