Paris 2024 Olympics Environmental Promises Come Unstuck
France's commitment to making the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games the most environmentally friendly on record has hit a snag.
Local residents at Teahupo’o are asking why their environment is being compromised — potentially threatening their livelihoods, all for a three-day event.
Teahupo’o has been one of the most popular stops on the Championship Tour for more than twenty years. It’s no surprise the reef break was selected as surfing’s Olympic venue despite being fifteen and a half thousand kilometres away from the host city.
"The first thing I say is it's not a battle against the Olympics,” Teahupo’o local and pro surfer Matahi Drollet said. “It's really pointing at this aluminium tower that they want to build on the reef."
Paris 2024 organisers want to replace a temporary, wooden judging tower with a permanent three-storey, aluminium structure. It requires concrete blocks to be lowered onto the reef for its foundations, and the laying of pipelines for the tower’s air-conditioning and plumbing.
“The local population feel like they've been left out of any conversation about the Olympics, about all the big construction that's going on inside our little town,” Drollet said.
Risk of introducing 'nightmare' disease
Most of the 1,500 locals are subsistence fishermen. The health of the reef is central to their community as a food source and vital to their economy.
The locals are also worried about the arrival of the painful ciguatera, an illness that plays havoc with a person’s gastrointestinal and nervous systems after eating poisonous fish — which has happened elsewhere in Tahiti due to changes in algal blooms associated with construction around the marine environment.
“To access the place where they want to build that tower there's about 500 metres of shallow water where the reef is super, super shallow,” Drollet explained. “And to bring all the big machinery, all the excavators, and all the things they're going to need to drill the reef, they have to pass over all these coral heads.
“What happens is that when you stress the coral, it ejects this algae that is poisonous. When the fish come in and eat this algae they become poisonous, they have what is called the ciguatera.
“Ciguatera is a disease that affects your nervous system … you cannot take a shower, you cannot walk on tiles because your nerves invert the hot and the cold.
“When you take a cold shower it feels like it's burning your skin. There's like needles falling on you. You cannot drink water because your throat…it's a nightmare.”
Conflicting views over tower
Former World Surf League (WSL) judge, Luke Reading, said although the wooden judges’ tower used currently is "basic", judges don’t spend time thinking about what they haven’t got.
“I never even really thought about the tower to be honest,” he said. “It's such a beautiful place… and the locals don't want that beauty ruined at all with something that is more permanent.
"We've really only got the necessities out there…[but] not once did I ever think, 'oh, air-con would be nice up here.'
“I was more like, this is awesome, I love this place.”
In an emailed response, Paris 2024 organisers acknowledge the concerns of the locals, but they say the existing tower does not comply with safety standards and the safety of Olympic officials and judges will not be compromised.
"The need to build a new tower is because the existing tower does not comply with the safety standards in force under French Polynesian law,” the statement said. “As organisers of the event, we cannot compromise on the safety of the officials and judges who will be working on this tower.
“Sensitive to the concerns of the residents of Teahupo’o and the surfing community...Paris 2024 wishes to involve local associations to study all possible options to improve the current project."
There is a temporary pause on construction while negotiations with locals continue, with time ticking. The Olympic Games begin in a little over eight months, with the surfing event scheduled for July 27-30.
More than 130,000 people — almost 100 times more people than live in the village at Teahupo’o — have signed a petition against reef drilling and the laying of pipes, staging protest marches and social media campaigns.
The locals have found an ally — the recently elected president of French Polynesia, Moetai Brotherson who recently told France’s L’Equipe news site:
“I had a reaction of solidarity… I understand their concerns, I myself am very attached to safeguarding our environment and cultural heritage.
“But what I want is for us to remain at a level of rational discourse.”
He may be the very person that will need to negotiate an outcome.
In case rational discourse fails them, locals are also calling on the spirits to intervene. They have carved an Unu, a totem pole, engraved with symbols of ocean life.
Drollet and other surfers paddled it out to the reef and set it free on the ocean tides, praying the gods of the ocean will protect Teahupo’o, in case the gods of Olympus cannot.
// TRACEY HOLMES
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