Paris Olympics 2024 | Eiffel Tower medals, swimming in the Seine and the idea of sport as a unifying force

A month before the start of the Olympics, thoughts on what this edition of the Games will bring to the table and the challenges it must tackle

Updated - June 21, 2024 03:55 pm IST

Published - June 21, 2024 03:29 pm IST

The Phryge, Paris Olympics 2024 mascot, poses in front of the Eiffel Tower.

The Phryge, Paris Olympics 2024 mascot, poses in front of the Eiffel Tower. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

On a visit to Paris last year, I saw little enthusiasm for the Olympic Games, starting in the French capital next month. “We are not looking forward to it,” said a baker, summing up the sentiment: it will be like the lockdown, we will have to work from home, going out will become difficult (16 million visitors are expected), we will be paying for the Games for years. A few, however, looked forward to renting out their apartments for a fortune during the event.

According to The New York Times, “The Olympic Games Committee has issued assurance that Paris will be able to house 100,000 visitors during the Games… price boosting has already begun.” That is from a report ahead of the 1924 Games in Paris. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French say. 

Paris hopes the carbon footprint of the Games will be half that of London 2012 or Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Paris hopes the carbon footprint of the Games will be half that of London 2012 or Rio de Janeiro 2016. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

The host city is seldom happy — succeeding in the bid is seen as the winner’s curse — but the world looks forward to the magic. You can be cynical or optimistic about the Games depending on which end of the metaphorical telescope you view it from, but magic it is. 

Even if that magic started off with a chuckle in Paris. The mascot of the Games, the Phryges, is being seen as “clitoris in trainers”, the feminist’s answer to the phallic symbol that is the Eiffel Tower. It is too, an inadvertent pointer to one of the issues facing the Games, and humanity in general — the matter of the gender spectrum.

In fact, many of the world’s concerns — gender, environment, drugs, sexism, terrorism, cybersecurity, dislocation of communities, corruption in the establishment, financial overreach, excessive nationalism, racial inequity — can be seen in concentrated form at the Games over the years. If the Olympics are the best sport has to offer, they also display the fault lines in the real world. Sport and life are like facing mirrors, reflecting each other. 

French President Emmanuel Macron talks to young swimmers during the inauguration of the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks to young swimmers during the inauguration of the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Paris. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Clean and green Games?

Paris hopes the carbon footprint of the Games will be half that of London 2012 or Rio de Janeiro 2016. Construction has been minimal, with 95% of the venues being existing structures; equestrian events will be at the Château de Versailles, swimming in a cleaned-up Seine. President Emmanuel Macron — who announced that the national elections will be held in June-July, thus adding another degree of difficulty to the preparations — has pledged to swim in the river to show that it is clean. When it is clean. 

The Seine is the venue for what promises to be a most spectacular Opening Ceremony involving boats carrying the 10,500 athletes before an audience of three lakh on its banks. 

A boat on the Seine river, the venue for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games.

A boat on the Seine river, the venue for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Winners will carry with them a sliver of history — the medals will have a bit of the Eiffel Tower in them, embedded from the iron that has been removed and conserved in the course of the many renovations of the 1889 structure. 

Bedside tables are made from recycled shuttlecocks, dinner plates can be repurposed for they will have no logos, and the Olympic Village will have no air-conditioning. This might be the greenest Games ever. 

Paris is Hemingway’s “moveable feast”, and so too are the Olympics. As an event, they might have lost some sheen — they are too costly (Greece went bankrupt after Athens 2004), disused stadiums abound, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a law unto itself — but the Olympics as an idea we must cherish, believing its ideals are attainable. It is a necessary myth. 

It is also an important measure of who we are and what we can do. When Usain Bolt runs the 100 metres in 9.63 seconds, we are gratified — this is what we as a species are capable of. Bolt and Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and Elaine Thompson-Herah represent us, and we are relieved we don’t have to work as hard as they have. It is enough knowing their feats are possible, that our fantasies can be realised by others. 

(Clockwise from top left) Athletes Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Michael Phelps.

(Clockwise from top left) Athletes Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Michael Phelps.

Perhaps that is the way to reconcile the contradictory nature of the quadrennial event. The attraction is not the institution, but the individual athletes, their skill, their courage.

We might like to believe that under the banner of the Olympics, our similarities will be highlighted, friendship and commonality will be the theme. Perhaps, as the author Simon Barnes put it, “The torch should be lit, and one by one the flags of the nations should be cast into it.” 

Prestige of hosting

We can dream, but that isn’t what the sports-entertainment-marketing complex is about. NBC didn’t pay $7.65 billion (through 2032) to sink nationhood, however briefly. Triumphalism and jingoism are the keys to viewership. 

We will hear in Paris speeches about how we must give peace a chance. But Russia will continue to attack Ukraine and the war in West Asia will continue despite the so-called ‘Olympic truce’ being in place. 

The budget for Paris has already doubled — and counting — from its optimistic $5 billion. The Tokyo Olympics were budgeted for $7.5 billion but spent $35 billion. This puts India’s dream for 2036 in perspective. Boston withdrew from the 2024 bid, the mayor saying he “refused to mortgage away the future of the city”. 

It will be interesting to see what Ahmedabad 2036 does if it wins the bid. 

In 2012, a study in Oxford found that there had been a 252% cost overrun since 1976, the year Montreal was host. It took Montreal three decades to pay off its debts. Beijing’s Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest, cost $460 million to build, needs $11 million annually to maintain, and is now just a museum piece.

Beijing’s National Stadium, known as ‘Bird’s Nest’.

Beijing’s National Stadium, known as ‘Bird’s Nest’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There is a good argument for hosting the Olympics either in one city — Athens, where it began in 776 BCE suggests itself — or for using the same venues in different continents in turn. Financially and environmentally, that makes the most sense, but the IOC is only too conscious of the prestige attached to hosting the Games, by authoritarian regimes seeking the world’s approval. 

It is naive to believe that the Olympics are about sports alone. But, as the gold-winning hurdler Edwin Moses said, “Most people only care about watching the Olympics every four years and couldn’t care less about how they operate.”

The IOC has shown in recent years that it is suspended between morality and human rights on one side, commerce and dictator-pleasing (the Games in China, Russia) on the other. Pure coincidence, of course, but Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler’s chief architect, was the lead designer for the Beijing Games 2008, and created the central axis. 

Still, the Olympics, despite everything, continue to have meaning and relevance. They are a reminder of possibilities, a tribute to the human spirit. ‘Faster, higher, stronger – together’, the new motto contemporises the old one, bringing it in line with the concept of inclusivity. After all, to paraphrase poet Robert Browning, our reach should exceed our grasp. 

The Olympics are magical. Or why would we stay awake till the early hours watching sports we have no idea about, cheering the winners, and just as importantly, those who tried and failed?

The writer’s latest book is ‘Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?’.

Games of power and change
Paris 2024 will be the third edition of the Olympic Games to be held in the French capital after the first one in 1900 and the second, exactly 100 years ago, in 1924. Dubbed as Games Wide Open, the International Olympic Committee has taken some initiatives to set new benchmarks and emerge as a sensitive and responsible Games towards future generations. Fielding a Refugee Olympic Team for the third time in a row, comprising athletes from various conflict zones, underlines the need for a humanitarian approach in a world full of crisis. Highlights from the upcoming Games and a reminder of some of the all-time greats from previous years:
For the first time, the opening ceremony will be held outside a stadium — on the Seine river.
Break dance will make its debut at the Olympics this year.
The mascots, called the Phryges, are based on the traditional Phrygian hats that have been a symbol of freedom since the French revolution.
A single emblem will be used for both the Olympics and Paralympic Games, signifying inclusivity.
Tahiti, which will host the surfing event in the island of French Polynesia, will be the farthest Olympic medal venue outside the host city.
This will be the first Olympics where an equal number of male and female athletes, 10,500 in all, will take part.
More than 100 Indian athletes are expected to participate in this edition.
Javelin champion Neeraj Chopra, boxer Lovlina Borgohain, shuttler P.V. Sindhu, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and the men’s hockey team will be seen in action in Paris.
India hopes to reach double digits in their medal tally this year. They won seven at Tokyo 2020.
American swimmer Michael Phelps, with 28 medals, including 23 gold, is the most decorated Olympian in the world. He was the first athlete to secure eight gold medals in a single edition. Former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, with 18 medals (nine gold), is the most successful female Olympian. Among countries, the U.S. leads, with a total 2,638 Olympic medals (1,065 gold) over the years.
— Compiled by Y.B. Sarangi (
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