Liam Morgan

Following much debate and discussion in recent months, esports will be a part of the Olympic Games after all. Well, sort of.

While esports will not officially be on the programme at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, organisers last week revealed "virtual and connected" events will be organised alongside sporting competitions due to be held in the French capital.

These will not be the killer, shoot ‘em up games which International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has repeatedly warned will never be aligned with the Games, but will instead comprise online versions of existing sports already on the programme.

The most concrete proposal in this direction so far came from World Sailing after the global governing body put forward offshore racing to Paris 2024.

Paris 2024 announced discussions with other International Federations regarding the possibility of staging these events, which organisers claim will increase engagement opportunities for fans and spectators, would take place in the lead-up to the Games.

Providing organises get the nod of approval from the IOC, it will effectively mean a form of esports will feature at the Olympic Games.

At first glance, it seems like a promising and enticing idea. Should the IOC give the green light to World Sailing and Paris 2024, fans from across the world will be able to compete in real-time against elite-level athletes, while offering them the chance to "share the Olympic experience and be at the heart of the Olympic Games".

This could go some way to addressing a prominent criticism levelled at the Olympics, namely that the youth of today are simply too distracted to take a keen interest in them, and bring fans, many of whom have been priced out of attending live sport, closer to the action in a different way.

Paris 2024 were at pains to point out that esailing was not a part of the concrete programme but the announcement, somewhat lost amid the fanfare last week over the four new sports proposed for inclusion at the Games, marks a significant step on esports’ problem-ridden path to formal Olympic inclusion.

World Sailing held its first eSailing World Championship last year ©World Sailing
World Sailing held its first eSailing World Championship last year ©World Sailing

In many ways, it does not come as a surprise. With the rhetoric emanating from Bach and the IOC, it was always likely that the first foray into any form of esports would involve online or even virtual reality versions of actual sport rather than egames with little or no connection to the Olympics.

Given World Sailing has emerged as one of the leading Olympic International Federations when it comes to a relationship with esports, it was also not unexpected to see confirmation that the organisation had made a formal proposal to Paris 2024.

World Sailing staged its first eSailing World Championship last year, while chief executive Andy Hunt claimed in November that "every federation should have a strategy for esports".

"It would be an amazing experience to see fans of the Olympic Games in the future being able to compete with Olympic athletes,"Hunt added prior to a presentation at the IF Forum in Lausanne.

This view was shared by the IOC in a statement released following an Olympic Summit in December, which stated how the organisation "encourages the IFs to explore the potential benefits and applications of the electronic and virtual versions of their sports".

Some have taken this advice more seriously than others but it will be interesting to see if Federations other than World Sailing come up with a "virtual and connected" proposal for Paris 2024, with cycling and rowing among other potential avenues for organisers to explore.

Questions remain, however, such as how exactly these events would work. Paris 2024 and the International Federations will have to decide whether they are purely for taking part or whether competitive elements can be introduced, while it remains to be seen how realistic this is in countries which are not as technologically advanced as other nations.

Yet it appears a sensible and practical solution to the disconnect felt by fans who wish their involvement in the Olympic Games could stem further than merely watching on television or from the stands.

Another way Paris 2024 is attempting to alleviate this issue is by holding mass participation events for members of the public.

One concrete possibility unveiled by organisers is staging a marathon on the same day as the Olympic athletes, giving runners of all abilities the opportunity to tackle the course under similar conditions to the world’s best in what would be a first for the Games.

The plan has been met with widespread praise across the Olympic world and in the running community, many of whom are excited at the prospect of taking to the streets only hours after their heroes.

Like the online and virtual event concept, a mass participation marathon sounds like an excellent proposition in theory.

You can picture it now; thousands upon thousands of runners lined along the Olympic route in the iconic city of Paris, lapping up the atmosphere and taking in the historic occasion. At a time where the Games are desperate for positive images, this would surely provide one.

It would also go some way towards the Organising Committee connecting with the local population in the host city, who often feel the worst of the affects of hosting the Olympic Games in their daily lives, such as travel disruption.

Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, fourth left, claimed organisers were hoping to increase engagement from fans with the Olympic Games to help make them more popular in the host city ©Getty Images
Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, fourth left, claimed organisers were hoping to increase engagement from fans with the Olympic Games to help make them more popular in the host city ©Getty Images

Residents are frequently perturbed by the Olympic circus coming to town. Save for buying tickets, organisers and the IOC have struggled to sufficiently engage locals with the event. Plenty feel marginalised and shunned during what is supposed to be a momentous time for their city and indeed their country.

There is also already a precedent in France as a mass participation event is held alongside the Tour de France, the world's most famous and prestigious cycling race.

The Étape du Tour includes a timed event for amateur cyclists of all capabilities, run every year on a full stage of that year’s Tour. Led by event organisers Amaury Sport Organisation, around 15,000 take part and it is described as "as close to riding the Tour de France as you are likely to get".

That may be true but there are clear issues with the marathon idea, particularly from a logistics standpoint.

Those with intimate knowledge of the French capital have highlighted high temperatures and humidity during the Olympics - due to run from July 26 to August 11 - as a key concern. While a marathon is held every year in Paris, it usually takes place in April, outside of the time where the weather is not only frustrating but also potentially dangerous for runners.

As my colleague David Owen wrote in February 2017, sweltering conditions caused numerous challenges during the 1924 Games in Paris, where only 15 out of 38 finished. A report from the time says that "ambulance men could barely cope with the demands" while "a Spaniard and four Swedes collapsed and were rushed to hospital".

Paris 2024 are also yet to confirm further details, preferring at this point to float it out there and iron out the nuts and bolts behind the scenes.

Organisers may have to limit the number of entrants, perhaps through a ballot system similar to the model used at the London Marathon, while they will also have to decide exactly how many races will be held and whether there is enough room to fit them into one day.

Paris holds a marathon every year but it typically takes place in April when temperatures are cooler ©Getty Images
Paris holds a marathon every year but it typically takes place in April when temperatures are cooler ©Getty Images

For this initiative - and the virtual events also under consideration - Paris 2024 deserve credit for bucking the trend of platitudes often expressed by Organising Committees when it comes to their plans for the world’s greatest sporting event.

Plenty of those before Paris 2024 have insisted their Games will be "innovative" and different, without actually introducing any innovative concepts and ideas.

The slogan of Paris 2024 is "made for sharing" - and these two proposals, which remain in their infancy, live up to that billing.