— Published 21 August 2023

Test trials in the Seine: a glass half full

The image was beautiful. Full of promise, less than a year away from the Paris 2024 Games. A battalion of triathletes throwing themselves into the Seine for the first leg of the test event for the next Olympic and Paralympic Games. Hot.

But the image, which was supposed to be seen four times in as many days of competition, between Thursday August 17 and Sunday August 20, suffered two setbacks. On Saturday, the river’s water quality was deemed insufficient for the para-triathlon event, which was hastily transformed into an imperfectly paced duathlon (2.5km run, 18.5km cycle, 5km run). The following day, it was the same scenario for the mixed relay, which was also forced to stay dry and change into an un-Olympic duathlon.

With these two unexpected and unwelcome incidents, the Paris 2024 OCOG has now had three test events disrupted by the quality of the water in the Seine. Earlier this month, the pre-Olympic open-water swimming competition had already been wiped off the map. Cancelled, pure and simple.

In both cases, the reason was the same: the level of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria was too high in relation to the standards set by the international bodies, World Aquatics and World Triathlon. For the mixed relay triathlon test event on Sunday August 20, analyses of three samples showed between 1,300 and 1,400 CFU/100 ml, above the authorized threshold of 1,000 CFU/100 ml.

At the beginning of August, the Paris 2024 COJO and the Paris City Council explained that the pollution levels recorded in the Seine were due to the misfortune of a week of record rainfall. So it was the weather’s fault. No such luck.

This time, both parties are more perplexed. Clearly, the very heavy rainfall at the beginning of August can no longer explain the results of the analyses. So what is it? A mystery. Pierre Rabadan, the city of Paris’ deputy sports director, makes no secret of his incomprehension. “An investigation is underway to find the cause of this deterioration, but to date, no explanation has yet been found,” he admits, quoted by AFP.

Worrying? To deny it outright would be to show bad faith. But the French Minister for Sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, is confident. “We just missed out, she says. It’s extremely encouraging, we’ll be there.”

As the Minister reminds us, it’s not a simple project, and the resources mobilized are considerable: 1.4 billion euros, half of which is financed by the State. It’s not all over yet, but it will be next year at the time of the Games. “We’re going to continue disinfecting and treating wastewater leaving our plants, she explained on Sunday August 20. We’re a quarter of the way through the 23,000 bad connections to be made to private homes. We also need to finalize the connection of all our barges to the sewer system.”

Tony Estanguet, President of the COJO, is similarly optimistic and confident. “The objective was to make the Seine swimmable by 2024, he insists. The system is not yet mature. There are still major efforts to be made, and new resources deployed to improve the quality of the water in the Seine.

Included in the Olympic program since Sydney 2000, triathlon has never before been transformed into a duathlon as part of an edition of the Games. Despite its bad run, the Paris 2024 OCOG doesn’t for a second envisage having to go through this in July and August 2024.

The course, I believe, has unanimous approval,” insists Tony Estanguet. So there’s no question of a Plan B being drawn up. The event will be held on the Seine, even if next year it means taking advantage of the so-called “contingency” days scheduled in the calendar.

Proof of its confidence is the title of the press release issued by the COJO at the conclusion of the triathlon test event on Sunday August 20: “A magnificent promise for 2024“. Promising, no doubt. But magnificent, not quite yet.