You already know what is worth celebrating about the Olympics. You may know this because the Olympics will not stop reminding you of them, but this does not mean they’re not real. The spirit of sportsmanship is not just a cliché for the telecast, and the games really do give women athletes, undervalued sports, and lesser-known nations valuable time in the global spotlight. But despite all this loud and proud egalitarianism, the games also shore up the power of the already powerful. The richest nations get the lion’s share of the medals, and most of the financial benefits are reaped by the IOC and the event’s corporate sponsors, who rake in revenue in ticket sales and concessions for events held in taxpayer-funded facilities. You’ll notice that the Games’ host cities are not a part of that equation.
Hosting the Olympics can be a poisoned gift, as the people of Hamburg, Budapest, Rome, and Boston have already attested. The city of Paris, which was officially awarded the 2024 games on Sept. 13—by default, as the other cities all dropped out—did not hold a referendum before bidding. Someone who held a dim view of the French government and was prone to speculating might see this as evidence Parisian officials were determined to hold the games whether the citizens agreed or not, and purposely didn’t hold a referendum for fear the result would be unfavorable.
It’s not hard to see why many French people do in fact hold such a view. One reason Parisians might not have been in favor of hosting the Olympics is because it’s a little tone-deaf to commit 6.6 billion euros to a 16-day event at a time when France is 2 trillion euros in debt and cutting back dramatically on social services. True, public funding for the games is to be offset by ticket sales, “marketing operations,” and an IOC contribution. But the IOC in turn makes money from broadcast rights and sponsorships. What France gets in the deal is somewhat harder to pin down.
More to the point, as Manon D. observes in an article in the French magazine Frustration titled “Olympics 2024: Concrete And Cash,” the consumer/taxpayer is on the hook for all the risk and almost all of the cost.:
“Media rights are financed by the audiovisual taxes you pay; the sponsors’ money comes from the Coke that you drink with your Saturday night pizza. The infrastructure [is] financed by your taxes. And then you’re asked to buy tickets to the stadium...Public funds serve to multiply private-sector profit.”
That private-sector profit will be made possible by public funds won’t even trickle down to the public coffers. In 2014, the National Assembly passed a law that exempts from from taxation, except sales tax, any international sports event awarded to France before the end of 2017. The 2024 Olympics qualify. That isn’t accidental, which means it isn’t any better than it looks.
The Olympic events are to take place in the greater Paris area, in a crazy-quilt assortment of locations. Most of the necessary facilities already exist, Paris being Paris, give or take a few sports complexes and an Olympic Village. These will mostly be built in the northeastern département of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is already home to the Stade de France, the home base of the Les Bleus. For the poorest département in metropolitan France, the Olympics will mark the first time in the global spotlight since the riots of 2005.
The outwardly surprising choice of Seine-Saint-Denis, often referred to by its departmental number of 93, can be explained by its location not too far from Paris and its large expanses of ready land. But there are also compelling PR reasons for bringing the Olympics to the 93, most notably showing a different side of a city that tends to be depicted in international media as a luxurious dreamscape, with sometimes traumatizing results for tourists shocked by the real thing. The Games also mark an opportunity for Parisian officials to rehabilitate the 93, the land of troublesome protestors/rioters—or in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, thugs—in the eyes of the rest of the country.
This is not just a matter of optics. Seine-Saint-Denis has many economic and infrastructure needs. Poverty and unemployment are sky-high, especially for young people. The département is very poorly connected to Paris by public transportation. Perhaps the most elemental problem in the département is a landscape bristling with public housing projects that are poorly maintained and offer dire living conditions. The Olympics will lead to development that will serve to improve the material conditions of the 93’s inhabitants. They will also arguably open the door for other conditions to get worse. This is not a new problem where the Olympics are concerned.
The Olympics can serve as a sort of accelerator to projects and free up funding that, under an austerity government, would most likely otherwise just vanish into a tax cut for the wealthy. Half of the entire budget for the Olympics, some 3 billion euros, is to be invested in the 93; half of that will be dedicated solely to the town of Ile-Saint-Denis, where the Olympic village is to be built. An employee of the municipality of Ile-Saint-Denis told me that preparation for 2024 would serve as the impetus to finally accomplish basic projects that citizens have requested for decades, like undergrounding power lines and the A86 highway. “It’s basically money from heaven,” he said. He added that most of the inhabitants of the city, who have been let down by many a wild promise, are wary of the promised overhaul and will only believe it when they see it.
Being prioritized by the government and flooded with cash is, to say the least, an unfamiliar situation for the département. In the words of Madjid Messaoudene, a Left Front city council member for the city of Saint-Denis, “working-class neighborhoods are forgotten and neglected by the promises of the republic.” Messaoudene said his district has been hit particularly hard by budget cuts whose effects he described as “catastrophic.”
Newly elected president Emmanuel Macron keeps making headlines for drastic cuts to public services, including programs for underserved urban neighborhoods. But his predecessors had already hacked away in the past. “We already saw cuts [in the general Saint-Denis area] reaching 60 million euros over 3 years, including 22 million for Saint-Denis alone. That’s equal to the cost of a school,” Messaoudene said. “Everywhere budgets are carved down year after year, we see it with the post office but also housing, security, employment, transportation… Almost everything is under-calibrated.”
The Olympics will not bring back these social services, which makes all the talk of revitalizing the département seem a little self-serving. A few sports complexes and other construction don’t make up for the gutting of anti-poverty initiatives, job training programs, voluntary associations, housing subsidies, and dozens of other institutions that the people of Seine-Saint-Denis rely on.
But DC-based journalist and Seine-Saint-Denis native Shahzad Abdul thinks that what the Olympics might bring is sufficiently promising to be worthwhile. An area with few shops and very little for people to do will emerge from the next few years with world-class sports facilities that all inhabitants will be able to use, including an Olympic swimming pool in a département where half of all sixth-graders don’t know how to swim for lack of a place to learn. Cecile, an activist with the 2024 Saint-Denis Olympics Vigilance Committee, told me that the 93 currently has four public pools, all of which are closed for lack of funds.
To Abdul, transportation is the 93’s biggest problem, and it’s also what he’s most optimistic about now that the Olympics are happening. He grew up in Clichy-sous-Bois and lived at home while attending the Sorbonne, which meant spending an hour and forty-five minutes each way on the train to class. The Grand Paris Express, a new network of express trains connecting physically marginalized suburbs to the city center and each other, is supposed to be huge boon for banlieue-dwelling students or workers in a similar situation who now might spend a total of four hours per day in public transportation. The entire Grand Paris network isn’t expected to be up and running until 2030, but because of the Olympics, the line serving Saint-Denis is suddenly a top priority.
The changes in preparation for the Olympics might also, Abdul hopes, involve tearing down some of the community’s 30-story towers to make way for less dense housing, something that happened in Clichy-sous-Bois after the riots in 2005 and which completely transformed the city. “However,” he said, “the challenge is that the Olympics are in 2024 and an urban policy like that takes decades.”
Historically, urban policy in Seine-Saint-Denis has not been constructive; it has, in contrast, been both violent and repressive. “Since the kickstarting of ‘urban renewal’ programs in the early 1990s and then of the Grand Paris megalopolis, the working-class neighborhood of Seine-Saint-Denis is on the front lines of territories to be ‘pacified’ and ‘reconquered’ by the dominant class,” sociologist Mathieu Rigouste, born and raised in nearby Gennevilliers, explained. Especially in light of the 2005 riots—which is all some people associate the département—there is a huge political incentive to demonstrate that these neighborhoods are “pacified.” That is, to hide any signs of social discontent and brandish the hallmarks of corporate progressivism: brand partnerships, environmental certifications, free wifi.
Paris has won these Olympics at a strange time in the city’s history, a moment when austerity is in full swing and the state is in thrall to the idea of the “smart city,” which Rigouste describes as “a concept of a neoliberal, digital, ‘green,’ under-control city, is a model that’s being deployed worldwide.” Politically, the Olympics are not just a moment to push trendy technocratic urbanism and a vague national boosterism. “The Olympics, as was the case in Brazil in particular, are an opportunity to invest intensely in programs to crush popular resistances,” Rigouste explains, “which get in the way of enacting these new imperial cities.”
The current planned location of the Olympic village is in between three housing projects, which suggests that, as in Rio in 2016, “security” will be the watchword of the operation. Before and during the Rio Olympics, which unfolded amid funding cuts for everything but the Games and the police, poor people and people of color living in favelas were brutalized and displaced by police. Those same police forces later violently repressed protests against that brutality and displacement.
France already has a police violence problem. Terror threats against athletic events are on the rise, and as France proved by passing a repressive anti-terrorism law in October, terrorist violence can always serve as a justification for state violence. Ahead of 2024, Rigouste expects the state will deploy “socio-racial segregation but also new types of enclosures, ways of dividing and locking down working-class territories by breaking forms of collective autonomy and by preventing access to the commons, particularly to the street, for the ‘dangerous classes.’” The Olympics may nominally be about any number of worthwhile virtues, and the Paris games may deliver some benefits to a community in need, but the games are what they are. The money and prestige involved are an incentive not for national unity, but for collusion between power players. For all they symbolize and all they mean to the communities that host them, the games tend to further enable the same abuses of power that already exist there.
Emily Lever is a French-American writer. She supports Marseille in Ligue 1 and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.