Paris Olympics planners sweat over opening ceremony

The vision announced by French President Emmanuel Macron is to move the ceremony from its usual location in the main stadium to the heart of the capital.

Sporting delegations will cruise down the Seine in boats, an armada of sporting excellence against the backdrop of the capital’s world-famous monuments before the eyes of up to 600,000 cheering spectators.

The appeal of such a bold statement of French ambition and art de vivre to a global television audience of hundreds of millions is clear. The implementation should cause planners to break out in a sweat.

“Everyone works and works enormously,” a senior French official involved in the process told AFP on condition of anonymity. “A ceremony like this has never taken place. But we will make it, we will be ready.”

As the games draw closer, the number of boats, spectator arrangements and means of crowd control and protection from a terrorist attack or accident are still the subject of intense debate.

French police “have never worked on a scenario like this,” a senior security source told AFP, again on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“If it’s something repetitive, they can debrief, make improvements, and find out what’s working. This will be a one-shot,” he added.

The total number of spectators who will be allowed to line the six-kilometre route is still up in the air, with the final figure expected to be between 400,000 and 600,000.

Around 70,000 seats on the lower banks or on bridges are scheduled to go on sale starting May 11, with prices starting at 90 euros ($96) and going up to 2,700 euros.

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These paid positions “are going to be expensive because they’re going to be unique. They will be very spectacular in this iconic city,” organizing committee head Tony Estanguet told reporters last week.

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However, some security experts have commented on the idea, warning of the dangers of uncontrolled mass movement so close to the water and the difficulty of securing such a long stretch of water overlooking buildings.

The chaotic scenes at last year’s Champions League final in Paris, as Liverpool fans scrambled outside the stadium, were a reminder of the dangers of poorly organized sporting events.

Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin, who was heavily criticized for his handling of the Champions League fiasco, traveled to Qatar last November as part of a fact-finding mission to the World Cup.

There he warned of the dangers of “a drone loaded with explosives falling on a crowd, on an exposed team, for example at an opening ceremony like at the Olympic Games”.

“When you organize an event like this, cyber attacks, the fight against drones, terrorist threat issues and crowd flows are important issues,” he told AFP.

Noted French criminologist Alain Bauer last year slammed the whole concept of the ceremony as “criminal madness.”

“There is not a single expert from France, from abroad, from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) who thinks this thing makes sense,” Bauer told broadcaster France 5 in May, adding that it was impossible to cover the entire area to back up.

Another danger for organizers is that some risk-averse teams could refuse to participate.

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Since the games are scheduled to take place from July 26 to August 11, the Ministry of the Interior has to find the necessary number of officials even in the high season of the summer holidays.

Darmanin expects 35,000 members of the security forces to be on duty for the opening ceremony, although police have already warned that requests for leave during the summer holidays will not be accepted.

The Home Office has also proposed deploying 25,000 private security agents for less critical missions, with thousands currently being screened, recruited and trained.

However, the low prices being offered by the organizing committee are making many private security companies reluctant to accept contracts, another source close to the event told AFP.

The total number of boats for sports teams was also recently downgraded, with “around 100” to take place instead of the 180 originally planned, according to a Paris city councilor.

A first training run is expected in July this year, in which 30-40 boats will take part.

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