Two years almost to the day before the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics, organisers are reportedly “in a cold sweat” over security, financial, venue and staffing concerns that could take the shine off Emmanuel Macron’s promised “national triumph”.
The reformist French president, who holds a meeting with key ministers on Monday for a progress report, has personally invested in the success of the Games, having energetically backed the city’s successful bid to host them for the first time in a century as an opportunity to showcase the best of modern France.
Organisers promise to deliver a new standard for mega-events with what they have said will be “the most sober, participative and sustainable” Olympics yet, thanks mainly to the use of existing high-quality venues and a relatively modest €8bn (£6.8bn) budget – by comparison, the 2012 London Olympics cost almost £9bn and last year’s rescheduled Tokyo Games had an official budget of £11bn. Just €1bn of the €8bn will come from taxpayers.
But French media reports and a recent leaked financial update suggest all may not be going entirely to plan for the Paris Games, which will bring about 9 million fans, 25,000 journalists and 14,000 competitors from 206 countries to the French capital.
Chief among organisers’ concerns is safety, with current plans for the 26 July opening ceremony involving a high-risk waterborne extravaganza in which athletes and national delegations sail down the Seine in 162 open-topped boats, watched from the river’s banks by a planned 600,000 spectators.
The unique security challenge of the opening ceremony is already giving organisers “cold sweats”, according to Le Monde. A former police chief said it would be “a dangerous moment” and the security problems were “far from resolved”.
According to Le Journal du Dimanche, security provisions for the ceremony include police divers, mine clearance teams, special forces on standby and “a particular effort around control of the city’s airspace to preclude drone attacks”.
Guy Drut, a 1976 Olympic gold medallist in the 110m hurdles who has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1996, criticised the ceremony as unnecessarily risky.
“The idea is great,” he told the newspaper. “But in today’s climate, there are just too many uncertainties. Why isn’t there a plan B? We could have the same ceremony, watched by more people, on the Champ de Mars [near the Eiffel Tower]. That would be easier to keep safe.”
Emmanuel Grégoire, a deputy Paris mayor, insisted he was “not unduly worried, but – speaking as someone who has personally seen bodies on the streets of Paris after the terror attacks of 13 November 2015 – I am certainly prudent”.
Wider security questions have been also brought sharply into focus by the chaotic scenes at May’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid outside the Stade de France, the key venue for the Games, where police forcefully held back and teargassed mainly Liverpool fans holding valid tickets.
A French government report last month highlighted multiple failures in the management of the match crowd, inadequate communications between public transport operators and police, and a lack of suitable routes to the ground.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has promised “lessons will be learned” from the fiasco but insists Olympic crowd management issues are “very different from those of a football match”, adding that the Stade de France has been organising large sporting events and concerts without serious incident for 15 years.
Nonetheless, last week’s retirement of the controversial Paris police chief who was in charge of public order for the Champions League final – and whose heavy-handed approach to security has long been criticised as excessive – has been welcomed.
Didier Lallement was replaced by Laurent Nuñez, a close ally of Macron, who has previously worked as a senior police administrator in Paris, chief of police in Marseille and national coordinator of France’s anti-terrorist intelligence service.
Security is not the organisers’ only concern. Fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused shortages of essential building supplies for the Olympic village, while rampant inflation threatens to derail the event’s €8bn budget – already nearly €2bn more than the 2015 bid estimate of €6.2bn.
A confidential audit report circulated last week and seen by the public broadcaster France Info warned of a significant risk for budget overruns, saying “strong, difficult and bold decisions” would need to be taken this autumn to rein in the cost of the Games.The report concluded that the “financing needs … are clearly superior to the possibilities offered by the totality of available revenue streams and reserve funds for unforeseen circumstances”, while warning of “upcoming budgetary tensions”.
Among other concerns, French media have said negotiations with several venues – 95% of the Games will use existing sites, often subcontracted from national sports federations – are progressing more slowly than planned.
Meanwhile, temporary facilities for competitions including boxing, shooting and horse-riding are costing more than budgeted, and venues for several competitions basketball, handball and volleyball have had to be switched around.
“Budgets are being exceeded pretty much everywhere,” one official told Le Monde. The audit report warned unambiguously that some of the organisers’ ambitions would “undoubtedly have to be substantially lowered” by abandoning “certain projects that may not be considered core to delivery of the event”.Nor has the Paris organising committee, known as Cojop, yet secured the last of the six main corporate sponsorships – or “premium partners” – it has budgeted for. Bank BPCE, retailer Carrefour, electricity giant EDF, telecoms operator Orange and pharmaceuticals firm Sanofi have already signed up – but the sixth partner, rumoured to be luxury goods multinational LVMH, has yet to formally do so.
There are concerns, too, that labour shortages mean the Paris Olympics will struggle to hire enough staff – including 22,000 security personnel and 1,500 bus drivers. “There simply aren’t the people,” said the former CGT trade union federation boss Bernard Thibault. “These problems need to be addressed urgently, now.”Earlier this month, the chair of the organising committee, triple Olympic canoeing champion Tony Estanguet, insisted earlier this month: “The project is getting stronger by the day.” He added: “That said, it’s complex; there are challenges. After two years of Covid and a war, Paris 2024 faces a very particular context. We’re going to have to stay flexible.”Others were less sanguine. “We’re moving forward in fog,” said Patrick Karam, vice-president of the Île-de-France region. “The lack of preparation is clear. We’re discovering that this venue is polluted, that that event has to switch sites, that this budget item has gone through the roof. It’s a joke.”
• This article was amended on 24 July 2022 to more accurately describe events outside the Stade de France at the Champions League final.