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A murky question at the Olympics: Will the Seine be clean enough to swim in?

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The Athletic

Follow our Olympic Games coverage in the run-up to the Paris Games.


PARIS — It’s been a beautiful spring in Paris as the city will host the Olympic Games for the first time in 100 years.

Temporary stadiums are rising at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, in the square next to the Orangerie (home of the Monet murals), in the gardens of Versailles. However, most people will never see what is perhaps the most important Olympic facility: the $1.5 billion underground tunnel and water tank that will make the Seine, the river that flows through the heart of the city, suitable for the triathlon and marathon swimming. races and beyond.

Yes, you read that right: swimming in the Seine. The river that melts hearts, the site of countless marriage proposals, where for years couples would ‘lock their love’ by writing their names on a padlock, attaching it to the Pont des Arts and throwing the key into the water. It’s also the river where only those craving a baptism through mud, sewage, feces and other waste would think of taking a dip, which has been illegal for about a century.

The organizers of the Paris Games tried this out last year with some test events, including a triathlon. Kirsten Kasper, a longtime triathlete who will make her Olympic debut in Paris, was there. She remembers standing on the starting dock, “looking at the Eiffel Tower and just smiling.”

The “looking up” part probably had something to do with that.


Men’s triathletes plunged into the Seine last summer as part of the test for the 2024 Olympics. A $1.5 billion underground system aims to clean up the polluted waters. (Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

As for the smile, it matches what Lambis Konstantinidis, the director of planning and coordination for the Paris Games, heard when he asked athletes about their time in the river.

“There wasn’t anyone who didn’t say it wasn’t a unique experience,” he said.

That’s one way to describe it.

Whether any of the Olympians and Paralympians preparing to compete on the Seine will get the chance to swim in the river remains an open question. It turns out that a $1.5 billion water tank meant to collect sewage during rainstorms that would normally flow into the river – plus years of forcing houseboats, ships and factories to stop polluting the river – only a limited amount can do.

Officials inaugurated the Austerlitz water basin in early May, which is located below the Austerlitz train station on the left bank of the river in the city’s southeastern quadrant. It can hold 13.2 million liters of water – enough to fill 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

At the end of May it rained for a week in Paris. That wreaked havoc on play at the French Open, rendering the Seine unswimming as rain overwhelmed the tank and tunnel system, and runoff and feces flowed back into the river.

Officials knew this could happen. They know this could happen during the Olympics, although late July and early August, when the Games take place, are generally warm and dry in the French capital. They hope the weather patterns hold.

World Aquatics, the global governing body for swimming, recommends open water event organizers consider alternative venues to accommodate a drop in water quality on race day. Officials in Paris considered their options, but ultimately decided to hope that it didn’t rain and that the warm sun of a typical Parisian summer could kill enough of the dangerous bacteria.

There is no Plan B other than postponing races for a few days to let the dirty water flow downstream. They say they can also turn the triathlon into a duathlon, which consists only of cycling and running, but there is no pristine lake on the outskirts of the city ready for the 10 kilometer swim race.

“Nothing will be done to endanger the athletes,” Konstantinidis said.

Austerlitz water basin


Paris organizers are counting on a newly constructed water basin under Austerlitz train station to keep the Seine clean during the Olympics and beyond. (Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Whether the water will be clean enough for competition has become a quadrennial conversation for Olympic organizers who increasingly tend to locate these events in scenic waters that look great on television. Open water racing doesn’t just mean swimming off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, during the Ironman World Championships. But the trade-off for beautiful images on television and matches in the heart of the cities where they take place is often quite dirty water.

In 2016, Rio wanted to keep swimmers away from Copacabana beaches, which for years have been the collection points for the city’s sewage. Five years later, Tokyo had the swimmers compete at the Odaiba Marine Park in the city’s busy harbor, which is also home to much of the city’s sewage and runoff. Officials installed a series of screens to capture some of the harmful bacteria from the excess flow.

Morgan Pearson, a favorite to win medals in the triathlon for the US, said the water in Tokyo was “much murkier” than what he experienced at last year’s test event in Paris. He skipped a practice swim in the river because he thought getting to know the current better wasn’t worth the risk of potentially getting sick.

“I’ve been in cleaner water in my life,” Pearson said of the Seine, “but there was nothing that stood out.”

Indeed, bacteria rarely do that.

Like all organizers of major open water competitions, the people responsible for the Paris Games will meet the World Aquatics standards for safe swimming set by the World Health Organization for the levels of bacteria most closely associated with sewage contamination – E. coli and enterococci .

river Seine


The open water location will certainly be on TV, but the health concerns for athletes swimming in the Seine will remain during the Olympic races. (Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

That requires a classification of “good water quality,” which for the microbiology majors among us means less than 500 “colony-forming units” of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water and less than 200 units of enterococci. A colony-forming unit is a collection of cells. The Seine will also have to undergo an eye test to look for darkness and floating debris. The intention is for the tests to take place a few days before the races and at several locations along the course.

Taylor Spivey, another member of the US triathlon team, grew up as a lifeguard on the beaches of Southern California, near Los Angeles. She knew from an early age that swimming after a rain shower was a bad idea. She hasn’t forgotten. Last year she swam in the test event in the Seine.

“Nobody got sick,” she said, smiling.

The prayer of all Olympic organizers is that the Games leave a legacy and transform their cities. For the French, it is an important part of this to ensure that the participants in the Olympic and Paralympic Games are not the last to swim in the Seine.

There are canals in the city where swimming is already limited. The city plans to open three swimming areas along the river by 2025, assuming the Austerlitz water basin can do its job and the city’s residents are ready to take this very specific leap of faith.

“Parisians are getting used to the idea” of swimming in urban waterways, Konstantinidis said, “but they will have to see.”

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(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletics; photo: Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)