With Paris Olympia 2024 around the corner, France is in turmoil. Preparations for the Games have been fraught, with striking workers, terrorist threats and disgruntled residents. Now, the snap elections have delivered political paralysis and heightened social tensions. In this context, Esprit explores the history and significance of this unique competition, as well as the controversies currently surrounding it.

Almost nothing remains of the original ‘values’ of the modern Games as imagined by their ‘founding father’ Pierre Coubertin. Re-founded in 1894 as an amateur event ‘detached from politics’, it was to be ‘protected from the real world, yet capable of infusing it with a spirit of reconciliation’, writes Marianne Ammar

Such idealism turned out to be notoriously difficult to uphold. As the Games continued almost uninterrupted through the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, the end of empires and decolonization, they ‘converged with politics and diplomacy’. In 2009, the United Nations granted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) observer status. The pretence that it’s all just a game is definitively over.

In March 2024, Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian journalists he would ask the Russian president for a ceasefire and ‘to respect the truce during the Paris Olympics and Paralympics’. Putin agreed to consider it. Yet the Olympic truce is ‘an invented tradition’, writes Sylvain Dufraisse, used to promote individual interests as much as global peace.

In the 1950s, several countries threatened to boycott the Melbourne Games. Spain and the Netherlands opposed Russia’s participation, while Israel’s participation was opposed by Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. To justify letting all countries take part, the IOC invoked the Olympics of ancient Greece, where ekecheiria was a kind of truce guaranteeing athletes safe passage to the Games.

Adjusting the concept, IOC officials called for ‘good will to prevail between athletes, officials and spectators of different nations’ for the duration of the Games, whatever their diplomatic relations. In 1972, the Soviets invoked the truce to demand that the US stations Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe suspend broadcasts in Munich during the Games.

After the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, at which the IOC called for a cessation of global hostilities for the duration of the Games, plus a week either side, the UN institutionalized the initiative. It now votes a non-binding text calling for the truce every two years, before the Summer and Winter Games. This step legitimized the IOC and its ‘policy of apoliticism’, granting it ‘diplomatic recognition’ and helping it ‘maintain its monopoly on the organization of multisport international competition’.

Republican games

Just as global events seep into the arena, so do the Games reach out into the real world, transforming the sporting practices they touch, the host cities and their residents’ ways of life. Host countries usually hope for international approbation, urban regeneration and a sportier citizen body. But France has set its sights much higher: Paris 2024 will showcase an alternative model to individualism and write a ‘new national narrative’, ‘imbue the future with meaning for the young’ and foster social cohesion.

How have sport and the nation’s goals become so intertwined? Patrick Mignon traces the evolution of this relationship, from the Third to the Fifth Republic. Pierre Coubertin’s vision of the Olympics was initially rejected as elitist, while in the interwar years, competitive sports, particularly football, cycling and rugby, were considered a threat to Republican ideals, capable of ‘turning the people into a mob’.

But gradually the French state perceived sport’s utility for transmitting Republican values. In 1998, the World Cup briefly united a divided country, ‘doing more than twenty years of immigrant integration policy’. Will Paris 2024 have a similar effect?

Capitalist games

Paris 2024 will showcase the city and endow it with new infrastructure and sports facilities. But at what cost? Hacène Belmessous points to a weakened democracy and the destruction of the utopian notion of a city for everyone.

In 1992, 2008 and 2012, Paris bid to host the Games, spotlighting the city’s ‘historical patrimony and symbolic figures’. It promised Games ‘on the human scale’, concerned with ethical and ecological issues. The IOC was unconvinced. Having lost to London in 2012, Paris blamed its ‘image as a capital frozen in time’ and capitulated to the ‘excessive demands of the IOC’, offering itself up as an investment destination: ‘attractive, creative, consumerist’.

Since the 1990s, capitalism has increasingly determined urbanism in Paris; the Games are simply the ‘denouement of a process unfolding at a distance from the democratic space’. A 2018 law making the Games a ‘project of national interest’ reduced public consultation on development and removed permit requirements, stifling debate. While investors make a fortune, residents face ‘unaffordable rents on the free market’, ‘a significant lack of social housing’ and the privatization of public space.

Seine-Saint-Denis will be ‘regenerated’ but its problems with deprivation and discrimination are left unaddressed. And after the Games, the remodelling will continue, squeezing out the few remaining pockets of social diversity as neighbourhoods like Belleville, once an artists’ haven, are redeveloped. ‘“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the slogan of the Games’, notes Belmessous, but ‘it’s the watchword of global cities too’.


Review by Cadenza Academic Translations

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