David Owen

France being France, it was only a matter of time before Paris 2024 took a political turn.

Even so, the fact that the issue that has triggered this concerns the project's sponsorship – or not – by France's most valuable heavy industrial company, and not some grievance linked to the country's still muscular trade unions, suggests that the times they are a-changing even in the land of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The main dramatis personae in this skirmish over whose money it is appropriate for the Games organisers to be spending are the same two politicians who showed up on the shores of Lake Geneva exactly two years ago to plead the French capital's case at the International Olympic Committee Session where it was decided to award the 2024 and 2028 editions of the Summer Olympics simultaneously some two months later.

Even there in Lausanne, while batting united and indivisible for a common cause, I felt their rivalry was transparent; it may yet, I wrote, "become an issue, if not for the bid then for the Olympic and Paralympic project Paris is widely expected to be selected to mount in 2024".

And so it has proved.

In the green corner is Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose campaigning for environmental initiatives appears to have been a strong factor in deterring French oil giant Total from agreeing to sponsor the 2024 Games.

Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne reportedly confirmed his company's decision to opt out last month in a summit with stakeholders.

This followed a meeting with Hidalgo, who faces re-election next year, where Pouyanne was reported by French newspaper Le Monde as having told her that he did not want the company to be a sponsor "that is then pilloried".

Those in what I am going to call, by contrast, the pragmatic corner have now been joined by the other political heavyweight who journeyed to Lausanne – French President Emmanuel Macron.

Emmanuel Macron and Anne Hidalgo are involved in a skirmish over Paris 2024 sponsorship money ©Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron and Anne Hidalgo are involved in a skirmish over Paris 2024 sponsorship money ©Getty Images

Macron told France Info on Sunday (July 7) in a resonant phrase that it was "easier to turn down private money while giving morality lessons than to find it".

He went on: "It is the case that some enterprises do pollute.

"But I am not going to explain to all Total's employees in France that they have jobs that are not worthy.

"Total must engage in a policy of energy transition, we must help them to do so.

"And if Total can put in money to help finance Green Games and to help finance this transition, it is a good thing."

The French President continued by asserting that it was "absolutely essential" that prospective sponsors "must be exemplary from an environmental standpoint and in terms of inclusivity".

Nevertheless, "we must mobilise all our enterprises to help provide financial support – not with their specifications but with ours," he concluded.

It is one of those arguments you can see both sides of.

Yes, we need to stop guzzling oil and gas; but, for the time being, most of us still consume petrol, plastics and myriad other oil-based products.

And if we are going to hold Olympic sponsors to higher standards than those to which we adhere ourselves, where do we draw the line?

Surely, if you are going to exclude oil companies, you must also rule out airlines and most carmakers?

Then what about SNCF, which runs the French railways?

And don't even get me started on businesses with ties to arms manufacturers; or which market sugary drinks; or cosmetics firms that test beauty products on animals.

Macron's thinking on the subject may be conditioned in part by the arbitrariness of singling out fossil fuel companies.

But he will also be aware that if private enterprise picks up less of the Paris 2024 tab than projected, the resultant gap would probably have to be plugged by the public purse – exactly the sort of development likely to further antagonise the populist gilets jaunes who have been making his life so difficult lately.

Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne has reportedly confirmed his company's decision to opt out of sponsoring the French capital's Olympics ©Getty Images
Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne has reportedly confirmed his company's decision to opt out of sponsoring the French capital's Olympics ©Getty Images

Perhaps fortunately, Paris 2024's overall domestic sponsorship target of $1.125 billion (£900 million/€1 billion) does not look massively demanding: Tokyo 2020 has raised in excess of $3 billion (£2.4 billion/€2.7 billion).

With five years to go, moreover, time is on the Paris Organising Committee's side – at least for now.

My money, for what it is worth, is on Total agreeing ultimately to be a sponsor – though whether this transpires before or after the Mayoral elections, I would not like to say.


Still with the green theme, I notice that not one but two Olympic white-water canoeing venues have been officially opened/inaugurated in recent weeks.

First was the Île-de-France Olympic Water Sports Stadium on June 22; then came Japan's Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre earlier this month.

To have two such facilities unveiled in such rapid succession is, I suspect, unprecedented.

I must admit though that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about these venues, stemming principally from a press briefing in London's Canary Wharf more than eight years ago.

At this I listened while a nice man from the Atkins engineering and design consultancy explained how the Lee Valley White Water Centre – the London 2012 canoe slalom venue – required approximately 40 kilometres of cabling and 15 cubic metres a second of water pumped through the course. 

The nice man likened this to 60 bath-fulls every second of the event.

Probably the requirements of the two new courses are somewhat different; the Île de France venue also caters for the other Olympic and Paralympic canoeing disciplines, as well as rowing.

However, with energy consumption such an issue for all of us, and with no obligation any more, supposedly, for Olympic venues to be clustered close together (Agenda 2020, don't you know), I have to ask, is this really a sensible use of resources?

As with surfing, I have the romantic notion that white-water canoeing should take place in a natural setting, i.e a river, rather than a marvel of modern, man-made engineering.

I am not completely, as they say, "away with the fairies" – I realise that, for all its appeal, this is probably unrealistic.

Japan's Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is one of two new whitewater venues to open in recent weeks ©Tokyo 2020
Japan's Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is one of two new whitewater venues to open in recent weeks ©Tokyo 2020

It would very likely create near insuperable issues of safety and fair competition; meanwhile, the energy saved by having a natural course would probably be offset by extra travelling costs, not to mention damage done to what might be a pristine rural environment.

However, with Olympic bids from, for example, Sweden, now able to make use of facilities in Latvia, I do think the time may have come for some sort of audit of these and other highly specialised, presumably costly-to-run-and-maintain sports arenas.

This would be in an attempt to a) assess whether new courses were truly needed – and b) to make sure that those which are built are located where it makes most sense from a long-term legacy perspective, rather than where the next multi-sports Games happen to be.

Teams conducting said audits should include at least as many environmentalists, finance specialists and other independent-minded experts with relevant expertise as athletes and officials from the sports in question.

It is time to put an end to the growth-for-growth's-sake mentality to which sport still seems prone.