What will basketball eat at the Paris 2024 Games? With less than 800 days to go, the question should have been decided ages ago. It is still not. It has even taken its place at the top of the list of the hottest issues of the moment for the organising committee.
On Wednesday 8 June, Tony Estanguet went to Lausanne to present a report on the preparations for the Paris 2024 Games to the general assembly of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF). The exercise seemed harmless. It was not very dangerous for the OCOG president, who is used to receiving praise from the Olympic movement for his cost control, his efforts for sustainability and the rigour of his schedule.
But Tony Estanguet’s speech to the ASOIF turned into a heated exchange with the secretary general of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), Andreas Zagklis of Greece. It was a heated exchange, with both parties sticking to their guns and showing no inclination to give in or accept concessions.
At the heart of the debate, the site of the preliminary tournament. Initially planned for Hall 6 of the Parc des Expositions de la Porte de Versailles, south of Paris, it must be relocated. FIBA considered the venue to be too low-ceilinged, poorly lit and badly ventilated, not in keeping with the standards of the discipline. Faced with the rebellion of several French NBA players, including Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert, the Paris 2024 OCOG gave in.
The Hall 6 of the Parc des Expositions has been forgotten. What remains is to find a plan B, a competition site for the preliminary tournament that appeals to FIBA, satisfies the players, does not threaten the OCOG’s budget, and does not force another sport out of the programme. One might as well try to square the circle.
After having analysed the current map of the system in all directions, and having received and rejected a handful of applications from provincial cities (Lyon, Orléans, etc.), the Paris 2024 OCOG has come up with a credible alternative: the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium in Lille (photo above). A retractable roof, 25,000 seats, modern and functional, two hours drive from the north of Paris. Chosen as the playing field for the handball tournament for the Paris 2024 Games, it has already hosted the Eurobasket finals in 2015.
The only problem is that FIBA does not want it. Andreas Zagklis explained this to his ASOIF colleagues on Wednesday 8 June, addressing Tony Estanguet: “We don’t feel that our athletes should be subject to the conditions we currently have on the table. We feel some basic conditions for our players like in all previous Olympics should be respected.”
The FIBA secretary general was very clear that moving the preliminary round to Lille would prevent players from staying in the athletes’ village during the first part of the Games. The distance would force them to spend several hours travelling. He also asked the OCOG about playing conditions “during the hottest days of the summer“, i.e. a safe floor, but also the possibility of recovery and catering for teams.
For FIBA, basketball must remain in the capital, from the first to the last day. To move it to the provinces, even in a venue of the quality of the Pierre-Mauroy stadium in Lille, is not acceptable. Andreas Zagklis has suggested that if no agreement can be reached, the Olympic tournament may have to draw a line under the presence of NBA players.
Clearly prepared for FIBA’s offensive, Tony Estanguet responded. But without losing an inch of ground. “Everyone would like to play in the centre of Paris, explained the OCOG president. I respect your concerns. I can assure you that basketball is important and popular in France. But we have to adapt, to maintain the ambition, in line with our budgetary limits. This is why we are studying together the best compromise. We need to find collective solutions, acceptable to you first and foremost, but at the same time to the stakeholders of the organisation, as well as public opinion. But you can count on us to do the best we can.”
The tug-of-war promises to be tough. On the one hand, an international federation aware of the value of its product – the leading team sport on the Olympic programme in terms of global and media impact – determined to remain at the heart of the Games, in a venue that meets its expectations. On the other hand, an organising committee faced with budgetary constraints, and determined not to let itself be dragged into a game of dominoes with uncertain effects.
ASOIF president Francesco Ricci Bitti of Italy suggested at the end of the day in a press conference that the IOC could play a role in arbitrating between the two parties. “I understand both positions, he said. At the end of the story, the IOC will take the lead and suggest what kind of solutions will be used for these Games. Very quickly because it is already very late.”
The IOC, therefore, as conciliator. As quickly as possible, because the OCOG is supposed to propose a plan B for basketball at the next meeting of its Board of Directors on 12 July. It is not certain that the Olympic body is keen to play such a role.