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When Paris won the bid to host the 2024 Olympics five years ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejoiced at least as much as Parisians. The list of cities vying to host the Olympic Games had shrunk to near zero, after previous hosts like Athens and Rio were left heavily in debt and the event had been marred by decades of sexual abuse and corruption scandals.
Now, with the Paris Games just two years away, there finally seems a chance to halt the decline, and reclaim some of the glory of the “Olympic movement,” as the IOC calls it.
The task lies in the hands of Tony Estanguet, president of the Paris Olympics 2024. Despite having to navigate a global pandemic, an economic downtown and a war in Europe while planning the Games, the 44-year-old French canoeist and three-time gold medalist, seems to have an optimistic smile permanently planted on his face.
Some changes from previous Olympics already seem clear. The vast operation—akin to launching a multinational corporation, and then disbanding it a few years later—is not headquartered in Paris’s glittering center, but in the immigrant-heavy suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest district in all of France. Its budget is a modest four billion euros (about $4.2 billion)—a tiny fraction of the $30 billion Tokyo spent hosting the Olympics last year. That is because about 95% of the sporting venues Paris needs to host the Games already exist.
The Olympics have come to define Estanguet’s life: he won gold in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and London in 2012, something that seemed wildly improbable when he was growing up in the provincial Pyrenées town of Pau. His three young sons, he says, are now ardent athletes.
The weight of expectation is heavy on Estanguet’s shoulders. It will be important for the Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC that the 2024 Olympics are free of scandal, economic woes, and bitter regrets. TIME sat down with Estanguet in the Paris Olympics headquarters, to discuss what is needed to pull that off.
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(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Is the IOC going to get the image makeover it needs with Paris 2024?
My role is to keep the best of the Games. We need also to improve the rest, to adapt to what we are living at the moment. I’m not an expert in finance, I’m not an expert in construction, I’m not an expert in politics. But I know sport, and more than ever, I believe sport can play a big role in our society. We have economic crises, health crises, big, big, big issues. Sport is a fantastic way to bring people together, to inspire, and to allow people to live their life in a positive manner.
So what’s different here?
This will be completely different from the past Games. I think it is a turning point for the IOC, for the Olympic movement, to change their minds about the philosophy and the legacy that the Games should leave.
It’s no longer in the number of buildings that you will build. It’s more about how you use this unique moment to inspire, to gather people, to send a message to the world that we still need some moment of unity, of peace, of sport.
You’re planning to have the opening ceremony [on July 26, 2024] on boats along the Seine, going all through the center of Paris. That’s really unusual.
It’s the first time that the opening ceremony will be outside a stadium. That’s important because we want to demonstrate that the Games will be unique and different. Paris 2024 has to be spectacular. We need to use its monuments, its culture, its history.
Of course, it’s difficult to deliver this kind of ceremony. We have 878 competitions to deliver. And every competition is big. There’s also the athletes’ village with 200 countries living together.
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Has Paris ever hosted such an event?
Never, never, never. It’s hugely complex. It’s 208 countries, 15,000 athletes, 20,000 journalists, 13 million spectators. It will be the biggest event that France has ever organized.
The Paris 2024 logo is a woman’s face around the flame. It’s been really controversial. Many people thought it was sexist.
I’m proud that it’s a human face, and it’s a woman’s face, because for the first time, we will have the same number of athletes—women and men. We will have parity. And I’m so proud of the fact that for the first time we are able to have the same logo for the Olympics and Paralympics.
You’ve had a big sporting career, and now you’re having to negotiate with governments and CEOs. How strange has that switch been for you?
I became an athlete in canoeing, doing canoeing twice a day, every day, and after 20 years of training, I decided to stop. It’s always a challenge to find a new career, and when I’ve been proposed to be involved in this, it was a fantastic challenge.
In the morning I’m involved with the international federation or with athletes. Then I have to meet with a business company to try to bring them on board. We are a private organization, financed 98% from private money.
You are still fundraising? How much have you raised so far?
€4 billion is the total budget of Paris 2024. We’ve already secured two-thirds of it, independent of COVID. When we created the organizing committee, we set some objectives: By the end of 2021, we were supposed to be at 60%, and we had the objective to be at 80% by the end of 2022. It is going well, because I believe this project has succeeded in maintaining a high level of ambition.
Paris lost five previous bids to host the Olympics. What went wrong?
On every attempt, we improved the proposal. The major change was between the bid for 2012 [which was won by London] and now. We increased the number of sportspeople involved, including me. The director general is also an Olympian,as are the director of sport, and the director of technology. We have a strong DNA coming from sportspeople. I can choose my team, and I decided who I wanted to work with.
Of course, I have businesspeople, people from finance, because I need them to maintain the budget. But I guaranteed that I would also have sports people in the organization. It’s not a political organization. It’s a sports competition organization.
Yes, but you have been thrown into politics. You supported the idea of banning the participation of Russia’s and Belarus’ athletes in 2024.
It’s not yet decided, right? It’s not my role to make these decisions, it’s the IOC’s decision. But of course, in recent months I supported the position of the international sports movement, to try to apply pressure.
There is this international dynamic, trying to fight against the war. And that’s something strong that we’re able to deliver, in a way. It’s not our role to be involved in these political matters. But I’m proud that we’re also able to contribute to the international dynamic.
Russian athletes were allowed to compete in Tokyo, but not under Russia’s national flag, because of the doping scandal. It has been so ambiguous and confusing. At what point do you need to make a decision about Russia’s participation in Paris in 2024?
The qualification system for the different countries to be able to participate will start this summer and end one month before the Olympic ceremony in July 2024. We have time, we are not under pressure. I think the priority at the moment is not to know if Russia will participate or not in Paris 2024. It’s more about when this conflict will end, and how we can contribute to a positive end with this war. That’s the major priority.
I assume you’ve had some pretty anxious times since you got the job in 2017. The pandemic completely disrupted the Tokyo Olympics. And now we have a war in Europe. What kind of contingency plans have you made, if the war spreads, or there’s another global pandemic?
We have to remain flexible and meditative. I’ve been impressed by our Japanese colleagues who were able to postpone the project for a year. It’s so complex to fix everything. There are solutions., You have to keep in mind as an athlete that, until the end, you will face challenges, you have to remain open and to adapt yourself to the context. I think we have to be prepared for that mentally.
You’ve also situated yourself in the heart of Seine Saint-Denis, the poorest part of all of France. Why?
When we decided to bid for the Games, we had this mindset, a vision: We want the legacy to be different. Not a legacy of having fantastic venues, but how this project can help a population. We have education programs, we have an approach in terms of employment and the tenders, we will involve the local businesses. Here in Seine Saint-Denis two-thirds of the employees are local people. The volunteer program will offer different opportunities for the population here.
You have about one-tenth of the budget that the Tokyo Olympics had. When you go out and speak to big business now—when things aren’t going well economically—do you have to make a hard sell to get them on board?
We already have 95% of existing venues. We’ll build 10 times less than the past edition of the Games.
For business, they know it’s a unique opportunity: In terms of exposure, in terms of motivation for people working in the company, it’s just unique to be involved in the Olympic torch relay, to be volunteering, to be involved in organizing the Games. Many of them use it internally, as a strong vehicle to recruit people. For business it’s really a challenge to keep the best talent, and these kinds of projects are very important.
They also benefit from the billions that will be invested. So for instance, [French energy giant] EDF is our partner. They will benefit because we will use their electricity, And after they will be able to demonstrate they are able to provide 100% from sustainable energy.
Yes, green electricity will be used for the Games. We’ve promised to cut the carbon footprint in half from the London Olympics in 2012: That was the reference, the greenest Olympics until now.
We’re building 10 times fewer venues, we will use public transportation, with all competition venues in public transportation-accessible areas. We are adding more local food. We’re already working with different companies to develop a new approach. Less meat, more vegetarian—a really new approach.
Are you a vegetarian yourself? It’s very un-French not to eat meat.
Ha! Not completely, but I reduced meat a lot. My team has educated me. I’m flexitarian.
Parisians complain a lot. But so far they support the Olympics. Yet you do hear complaints, most strongly about the whole redesign of the city. Blocking the Trocadero and the Champs-Elysées [key areas around the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower] to traffic. People link that to the Olympics, even though the plan came in before Paris won the 2024 Games.
We have not imposed any long-term project for the use of the Games. We will use those areas, just temporarily, and the same conditions we will take it will not impact on the Games, except the two months of use. It is the vision of the Mayor of Paris [Anne Hidalgo], who has been elected with a clear vision of reducing cars and adding more places for bicycles. We just have to respect it.
Many of those projects were decided in 2010, and were supposed to be delivered by 2020, then 2022, then 2023.
People have become pretty cynical about the Olympics. It’s seen as wasteful. The number of cities wanting to host the Games is very small. Do you hope or believe Paris will have an impact on how people think about the Olympics?
Of course I wish for it. I believe it’s needed in our society. It’s important to have this moment of gathering the world, an inspiring, positive moment. It’s had a big impact on my life, and I’m sure it can have a big positive impact on many lives.
This will be the third edition of the Paris Games: There was 1900, 1924, now 2024. A hundred years ago there were 14 countries competing.
So we have Paris 2024, Los Angeles 2028, Brisbane 2032. That’s a very different set of cities that we have had the last 20 years or so, with Beijing, Rio, Sochi. What needs to change in the Olympics?
The Olympics is a relay race. You build from the success or the previous ones. The Olympic movement’s strength is its universality. We need to bring sport across the planet, everywhere.
That’s also a message of our concept in Paris 2024: Sport has to be spectacular. Sport has to be everywhere, not just in the stadium. We will be in the Chateau Versailles. We will be in museums. We will be in the streets. We will be everywhere. That’s really a vision of how sport can have an impact on society, by being everywhere. It’s good that we have a new chapter, in France, then the U.S. and Australia. I’m sure that those three countries will add something different—some new creativity and some new technology, probably.
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