Let the Games Begin

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French officials are only fairly sure that the opening ceremony for the upcoming summer Olympics starting in late July will occur on the River Seine that winds through the City of Light.

At present, the plan is for the athletes to travel down the river in boats. Nearly 330,000 onlookers are expected to flock to the Paris waterfront and surrounding bridges and streets to cheer them on. Unfortunately, reported Politico, concerns about terrorism have prompted organizers to consider other options, including holding the ceremony in a stadium where security will be easier to maintain.

Such concerns are not the only unknowns hanging over the Games.

The French government has dug an enormous reservoir next to the Austerlitz train station in the capital, for example, to prevent rainwater and sickening sewage overflows from polluting the river, where marathon swimming and triathlons will be held, wrote the Associated Press. The reservoir will hold and treat enough water to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools rather than dumping it into the river.

That’s not the only way the French are cleaning up the river. They have also been displacing migrants who live along the riverbank in tent cities that have popped up as more asylum seekers and others flee to France, but have nowhere permanent to live.

“When the tourists come, they won’t have to see the bad people,” Dak, a 20-year-old South Sudanese migrant who had been living under the Charles de Gaulle Bridge near the city center, told the Washington Post.

That’s not the only place in Paris and its surroundings where authorities are moving people in their massive clean-up operation. Seemingly overnight, groups of drug addicts have disappeared from their hangouts near the Canal de l’Ourcq and other places in the city. Tents of migrants under elevated metro lines are gone. The homeless, along with the benches they sleep on, have gone missing in many neighborhoods.

As a result, 80 charities partnered to form a new group called “The Other Side of the Medal” to raise alarms about these policies. As Agence France-Presse explained, the group recently issued a report showing how migrants, squatters, the homeless, and sex workers were suffering as the government invested $8.7 billion money into facilities and other preparations. The report found that nearly 2,000 people had been displaced.

“This summer, Paris and its region will be able to present themselves in a way that authorities see as favorable: a sterile ‘City of Light,’ with its misery almost invisible, without important informal areas of life, ‘clean’ neighborhoods and woods, without beggars, drug use or sex work,” the report said, calling the operations “social cleansing.”

Meanwhile, some of the investments into the Olympics will help the banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis and other northern suburbs, which are multi-cultural, immigrant-filled areas known here for their riots and its poverty, El País reported.

Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest and youngest in France, is actually the center of the Olympics because it hosts France’s largest national stadium. Already, it has seen the building of the Aquatic Center for swimming, the Athletes’ Village and the construction of the Grand Paris Express, a public transport system that will connect the cities and neighborhoods of the region.

Now, many like the mayor of L’Île-Saint Denis are hoping things change for its residents after the Games are over.

“We have suffered (with all the construction) but not only will this transform our town, we will be at the heart of the (excitement),” Mayor Mohamed Gnabaly told the Straits Times. “We are not going to be left out”.

Meanwhile, many French folks are still grousing about the high costs and inconveniences associated with the Olympics, a common phenomenon among anyone who has spent time in a city where the Games are occurring.

For a year, parts of Paris have resembled a warzone as streets and sidewalks have been ripped up and reconstructed. Now, some areas of the city are off limits to everyone but residents or Games attendees, both needing special QR codes to access them. Already some locals are planning their exit from Paris – transportation will be difficult during the events with some stations closed and other lines not running, making getting to work – or anywhere – tough.

Time will tell whether these scoffers change their tune when they see the torchbearer running to inaugurate an event billed as bringing the world together.

Novelist Robert McLiam Wilson, who is based in Paris, doesn’t think so.

“(Now) Paris mutters and grumbles to itself like a pessimist being told to cheer up,” he wrote in the Guardian. “Perhaps the Games will be an uproarious success after all … But, in a country deeply at odds with itself, launching a giant shindig designed largely for television cameras and subject to corporate prerogatives is not going to win you any friends.”

“Essentially, staging an Olympic Games is about improving how the world thinks of you,” he added. “But with an absoluteness hard to describe, Parisians don’t give a stuff what the world thinks about them. It is, by far, their best feature.”

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