Olympians prepare for grim act following Paris' 'bold' decision

There's just three weeks to go until the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, but one major, putrid obstacle stands in the way for the open water swimmers.

US Olympian Mariah Denigan (left) tapes her mouth shut while warning signs about the water quality have been erected (right) in Paris.
There's just three weeks to go until the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, but one major, putrid obstacle stands in the way for the open water swimmers like the US's Mariah Denigan.

With merely weeks to go until the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, sports and tourism officials are now rolling out their finishing touches to ensure the city's in top shape for the estimated three million people soon set to descend on the French capital.

Athletes that have been training for years for their moment in the spotlight are making final preparations to ensure they're in peak health for their respective events, but for a select group of Olympians, a major obstacle still stands in their way.

For 100 years swimming has been banned in the River Seine, widely considered the "landscape centrepiece of Paris", due to unacceptable pollution levels. But in just three weeks, it's hoped the waterway will host a myriad of high-profile Olympic events, including some of the main attractions — the opening ceremony, 10km freestyle and triathlon.

A view of the River Seine in Paris, ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games due to take place in three weeks.
A rehearsal for the Paris Olympics opening ceremony was already cancelled earlier this week due to dangerous water in the Seine. Source: Getty

The Seine, that has arteries which flow near some of Paris's most prominent tourist attractions — including the Eiffel Tower — has long suffered from dangerous levels of pollution, made up of mostly sewage and street runoff.

Like most major historic cities, Paris's drainage system is prone to overflowing in wet weather and should there be a spate of rain in the lead-up, it's unlikely conditions in the Seine would be considered suitable for any kind of water event.

RELATED: Yahoo News Australia's up to date Olympics coverage of the games in Paris

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, water expert and professor at the University of Western Sydney, Ian Wright, said it's a "bold" move to plan so many events around the Seine.

He said he's not heard of any back-up or contingencies should the waterway be considered unsafe, meaning the future of some of the events hangs in the balance "of the weather gods". For the triathlon, it has been reported the event could be put back a few days and even changed to a biathlon, with the swimming leg omitted.

"It's a really, really bold move they're proposing," Wright told Yahoo. "It's really going to depend on the rain. If they get several days of medium to heavy rain, it'll be dangerous. That's my prediction.

Infrastructure is seen around the river, where spectators and tourists will sit should river-based events go ahead.
Infrastructure around the river has already been set up, with final touches being added this week. But it remains to be seen if the river-based events will go ahead. Source: Getty

"Right around the world we know when we get lots of rain, it gets into the sewage system, and they leak, they overflow. I know the Parisians have been preparing and spending a lot of money, making it as watertight as possible, so they'll just be praying for good weather."

Wright said the main issue is sewage and faecal matter, but the waterway is home "really, to a big mix of everything". He said there's a whole host of health issues that could arise from people swimming swimming in it.

"When we flush toilets, we basically mix up faecal waste and all the other waste and generate about 200 litres per person per day or more," he said. "If you multiply that by the population of Greater Paris, which I think is in the order of 10 million people [11.2 million according to the latest figures] and add in athletes, tourists, media — that's a lot of sewage.

"Obviously, Paris has developed from medieval times, even earlier, and technology has improved since then, but even in our modern cities — and I've worked for Sydney Water — it's a very common problem."

For many athletes, the Paris Olympic Games will be a career-defining moment and as such, most will unlikely be deterred by the pollution levels, Wright theorised. He said "open water swimmers" are probably "all really keen to do it" regardless, because "this is what they do". Though, should they enter the water while it's polluted, they may not exit as healthy.

Wright expects that if the events do go ahead, athletes may be required to sign a form of waiver for legal reasons. "Gastrointestinal disease is the main concern," he said. "But really there's a whole series of viruses and some bacterial illnesses that can occur.

"When you swim, and especially at the rate these guys will be going, you cannot help but drink at least a bit of the water — so it is a serious concern, definitely".

With so much dependent on the weather in the next few weeks, Wright said he expects a final call to be made merely days out from the opening ceremony. Until then, it's anyone's guess, he added, reiterating his belief that he expects athletes will want to compete anyway — if they're allowed.

"Personally, I think there's going to be two races: One will be to see who wins and the other one will be to see who gets sick," he said. On social media, some Olympians have already joked about their upcoming swim in the "pooey" water.

Test results released on Thursday revealed the water quality of the Seine has improved, according to data from the Paris mayor’s office.

The testing showed that E. coli bacteria levels at the Olympic swimming site in central Paris have been within acceptable limits for four consecutive days, thanks to warm and sunny weather in the last week, France 24 reports.

“This positive development is a consequence of the return of sunshine and warmth as well as the effects of the work done as part of the strategy to improve the quality of the Seine’s waters,” a statement from the mayor’s office said.

The previous week, E. Coli levels—a bacteria that indicates the presence of faecal matter—had exceeded the upper limits set by sports federations each day at the Alexandre III bridge location in central Paris, which will serve as the starting point for the swimming events.

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