Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

When Guy Drut, one of three French International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, announced last month that the original shape of the Paris 2024 Games was now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, "obsolete, outdated, out of touch with reality", it is fair to say that numerous eyebrows were raised within Olympic circles.

Drut, a former Minister of Sports and an Olympic champion at Montreal 1976 in the men's 110 metres hurdles, added in his column for Franceinfo: "Can the response to this crisis translate into the mere postponement of dates, without the model, both economic and organisational, of the Games being also deeply rethought?"

Whether by way of acknowledgement, or perhaps rebuttal, the most recently established French IOC member Tony Estanguet, President of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, wrote earlier this month to all stakeholders highlighting the ongoing efforts to review and reinvent the project in the light of what he described as an "unprecedented crisis".

Estanguet - who at 42 is nine years younger than the third French IOC member Jean-Christophe Rolland, Sydney 2000 gold medallist in the coxless pair rowing and now President of that sport’s international federation - told insidethegames that the feedback he has received from said stakeholders has been "very positive".

He added: "They all want this project to be a success, they all believe that it is really needed in this country - a positive project that will bring people together and will highlight the power of sport. So I remain optimistic."

The description of the current Paris 2024 project as
The description of the current Paris 2024 project as "obsolete" by French IOC member Guy Drut has caused many ripples in the Olympic pond ©Getty Images

And just a little bit defiant too. Speaking to this triple Olympic canoeing champion this week it was clear just how committed he is to the core of the original Paris 2024 bid idea - or as he likes to describe it, it’s "DNA".

But first, the question of that message from the senior French IOC member to, effectively, the most junior - and a man whom he has certainly guided, if not mentored, in the past.

Nick Varley, the British communications expert who has worked on four successive winning Summer Olympic Games bids - London 2012, Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 - knows both men well from his time on the latter campaign.

"What Guy said was exactly right about questioning whether the response to the crisis could just translate to postponements without there being a total re-think," Varley commented. 

"That bit I think is right. What was wrong, and I think this is maybe a bit of a Lost In Translation situation, is the way in which he said it. The word ‘obsolete’ and so on and so forth.

"But I think what he said was broadly correct and everyone realises that is where they need to head. And the good news is that in Paris 2024, with Guy and Tony and lots of others who worked on the bid, they have got great people to re-think this, and they are also working with people at the IOC  who are keen in many cases to see the re-boot of the mission.

"This whole crisis has just accelerated some of the trends that I think were happening anyway."

Estanguet’s take on Drut’s intervention contains a little puzzlement, but certainly not any objection.

"For me it was quite a misunderstanding about the reaction of Guy," he said. "We need a project in this country that will contribute to the economy, to the social aspect, that will bring people together. More than ever we need this project and we need to keep the best of this project, and the DNA of this project won’t change. We are on the right lines.

"I didn’t really understand why Guy did this comment. Of course, we know we have to change, we have to adapt in the way we will deliver the Games. Because that is the principle of an Organising Committee - to remain connected to the reality, and to remain united.

"Because we are linked with many stakeholders, and in this situation all the stakeholders are suffering. Our role is also to see how we can help the sport movement to rebuild after the crisis. That’s the key moment.

"We will use this tool not to prepare the Games, but to help sport. Because that is the new first step for us. The way to succeed for Paris 2024 - we have first to help the sport movement to survive and to remain strong in society. That’s a change, for sure."

Tony Estanguet, President of Paris 2024, is working to tailor the Games to the post-COVID world, but insists:
Tony Estanguet, President of Paris 2024, is working to tailor the Games to the post-COVID world, but insists: "the DNA of this project won’t change. We are on the right lines" ©Getty Images

But as Paris 2024 comes under active review, what are the changes being contemplated on the ground, beneath the overarching social ambitions?

"At the moment the strategy is more how, without moving the DNA of the project, how we will adapt the back-of-house of the Games," Estanguet said.

"It is part of the specific jargon of the Olympic Movement that we have the front-of-house and the back-of-house. We don’t want now to really change the front-of-house because it is what makes the Games so unique. I would still defend this part of the Games. This project is just magic and I really want to keep it.

"So we are looking at how we can optimise the way to deliver such a big event. In terms of transport. In terms of accommodation. In terms of everything that we don’t see really during the action of the Games.

"This crisis offers an opportunity to re-question all of those parameters and operations behind the actions of the athletes. That is where we can definitely improve.

"We will have to make collective efforts with the main stakeholders of the organisation of the Games - the IOC, the IFs [International Federations], the NOCs [National Olympic Committees] - all of them will have to decide the level of service we want to have in our operation.

"I still believe that in terms of transport we can rationalise ways of transport in a city where we have one of the best public transport systems in the world. We have a Metro station every 400 metres in the city. So it is hard to say that we need to put in place a parallel transport system with shuttle buses for different public centres for media, national federations, and so on and so on and so on…

"Now we have the technology in place where we can get all the shuttles where we have to, and we can try to reduce the level of the system - and that’s millions [of Euros] there to save."

Paris 2024 organisers are looking to cut down on hiring ahead of the Games by accessing operational expertise accrued by organisers of events such as the Tour de France ©Getty Images
Paris 2024 organisers are looking to cut down on hiring ahead of the Games by accessing operational expertise accrued by organisers of events such as the Tour de France ©Getty Images

Estanguet believes collaboration will be key in cutting costs. "We have discussed such questions even before the beginning of the crisis," he explains. 

"We have been speaking to many of the major companies that are helping us to deliver the events. We can also question sometimes whether we need to hire so many experts but can instead use the existing skills from national and international federations or events such as we have in France, such as the Tour de France.

"We are looking at how we can better utilise the existing skills rather than hiring thousands of people in the Organising Committee to re-invent a little bit what we already have.  So in terms of human resources we want to have a different strategy.

"And in terms of the Olympic Village, we can really save a lot of money to really be at the right level of capacity. As we know there are 20,500 athletes during the Olympic Games and 4,500 during the Paralympics. The size of the Village was originally about 17,000 beds. But we have been looking at how we can reduce this capacity to what we really need. Because there we can also save some money.

"The 17,000 capacity is something that has been decided for years and years, and the last edition was based on this number. But with the NOCs we have started to look carefully and we have realised that we can save more by finding a way to reduce to less than 15,000 beds.

"Saving 2,000 beds in the capacity of the Village will save millions of euros in terms of the building, and that will be really important at the end of the day for the budget of the Games."

Will the adjustments in the Village also mean athletes staying for a shorter time? No.

"That’s something we won’t change," Estanguet responded. "We don’t want to change the DNA of the Games. The objective was more to be really close to the reality, because we realised that in the Olympic Village we never had more than 10,000 at the same time.

"You have athletes competing in the first week, and the second week and so on… you never have the maximum of athletes at the same time. So that is something we wanted to do, and there was a collective agreement with the NOCs and the IOC that we could reduce the capacity of the Village.

"We have started to review all these areas, and there are many of them, and the idea is to have a clear view by the end of the year. This timeline was decided even before the beginning of the crisis. We wanted to really adapt the model of Paris 2024 in this time.

"But now the situation has changed and we have to go deeper and we have some margins in terms of our means because we still don’t know the real impact of this crisis. It will have impact in terms of the economy so we have to get the margin there in the event."

Paris 2024 organisers are reviewing transport, accommodation and human resources to achieve millions of Euros of savings ©Getty Images
Paris 2024 organisers are reviewing transport, accommodation and human resources to achieve millions of Euros of savings ©Getty Images

Varley believes the proposed back-of-house changes are "entirely sensible, and certainly on the transport, long overdue."

He added: "We’ve all been to the Olympic Games and seen the transport hubs, and the cars backed up and all the rest of it. And if you are lucky enough to be in that bubble of having your own car and being chauffeured around the city pretty much at your will for a fortnight that’s great, but that seems very yesterday.

"And how you could justify that in future seems to be very difficult, so I think the areas of transport and the Olympic Village are two items that are perhaps overdue a review, and good on Paris 2024 and Tony and the IOC as well for having the same ideas and looking at them.

"The third area I would add to that is new venue build. Personally I find it very hard to see how any sport that requires a new venue to be built at the Games can justify that unless that venue has a very good legacy or re-use plan.

"The days of building canoe parks in Brazil which then don’t have much of a use would seem to be over."

Last year Varley wrote a blog for this site bidding farewell to the old-style Olympic bids. He also believes Paris 2024 will be instrumental in ending old-style Olympic Games.

"I think Paris 2024 was already going to be a new type of Games, a new model for hosting," he said. "They were already thinking about a number of things that were new. Firstly mass-participation events on the back of elite sport events - they were already going down that route, such as having a mass-participation marathon on the marathon route the day after the elite race.

"And other mass-participation ways of getting people involved in the Games rather than just watching the Games. That is one example. Another example that springs to mind is the urban sports park, that they were going to put a load of temporary venues around the Place de la Concorde and stick a load of more urban sports in there, which is also a new idea.

"So I think Paris 2024 was already going to be different and new and potentially an exciting new blueprint. I think what is happening with coronavirus and the re-thinking that’s going on will mean that it will be even more of a new model. I think Paris 2024 becomes in some ways the most important Games that we have seen since LA [Los Angeles] in 1984, because it will be the debut of potentially what the Olympic Games looks like going forward.”

Urban sports planned at the Place de la Concorde will be a key innovation at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images
Urban sports planned at the Place de la Concorde will be a key innovation at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images

Jon Tibbs, founder of the international relations and communications agency JTA whose client list past and present includes Los Angeles 2028, Manchester United and the Association of National Olympic Committees, also believes Paris 2024 has a unique opportunity as well as a unique challenge.

"This is a really good chance for reflection and planning for the future," Tibbs said. "Because it is going to take two years for life to return to normality, and that is prime planning time for Paris 2024, inevitably it is going to have knock-on effect for those Games.

"What is going to be more interesting is what will that have in terms of a knock-on effect for Los Angeles and all future big plans that are going to be put forward not just to the IOC but FIFA and other international bodies.

"And so organisation and technical consultancies who are involved in planning for major events are all beginning to really grapple with that now. I think they’ll do well to look outside the normal industry small pond for their inspiration. They need to consult with the wider society."

Tibbs suggests that future Games can benefit from a less-is-more philosophy - but not necessarily by involving fewer sports and competitors.

"No," he said, "I think live TV is still king. Wait until you see the viewing figures for football behind closed doors. I anticipate they are going to be absolutely astronomical. The hunger and the thirst that develops with no live sport on TV is monumental so I think people will be desperate to get back to watching on TV.

"So I am not referring to the amount of sport taking place - I think people have a voracious appetite for that. But I do think less is more in terms of major international multi-sport events in terms of trying to have mega-stadiums, in terms of this whole notion of trying to have everything compacted together into a really tight, easy-to-access unit."

Olympic expert Michael Payne concurs with that view of what "less is more" might mean for future Games.

"The IOC has already launched a more flexible approach to the Games - and COVID-19 will only continue to drive this," said Payne, who has been involved in Olympic marketing since Los Angeles 1984 and served as IOC marketing director from 1989 to 2004, since when he has brokered numerous key Olympic sponsorship deals from the other side of the fence.

"Does this mean fewer athletes at the Games? Not necessarily. Just better use of the key assets, like the Athletes' Village - not leaving a large percentage of the rooms and facilities empty just because you have to have beds for the main number. It’s a case of better load management."

The number of sports and competitors involved in future Olympics is a topic of strong debate by experts ©Getty Images
The number of sports and competitors involved in future Olympics is a topic of strong debate by experts ©Getty Images

On the question of whether fewer sports will be involved, Payne responded: "Not necessarily if a more flexible use of venues, temporary venues-slash-structures can be introduced.

"The Olympics already enjoys the rarity value of being held once every four years - something that other many other International Federations have lost in their scramble to host World Championships every two years or more."

Asked to highlight key changes post-COVID-19 that will stay for good as far as the Olympic Movement and Olympic and Paralympic Games are concerned, Payne responded: "The days of dozens of commission federation members flying around the world are over. Video conferencing will drive all future commission meetings for IFs, with gathering in person being held only once a year, around a World Championships or annual assembly.

"This will represent a dramatic cost saving for all IFs. Many sports leaders probably already wanted to move in this direction but it would not have been 'politically' welcomed by the rank and file. COVID-19 givers leaders the opportunity to make this change."

Payne also foresees increased and better use of technology to come alongside a "more focused sports calendar - fewer but more important events."

He expects the future to see increased engagement through the social media platforms - saying the potential for community engagement has been an "undervalued asset of sport" but that "COVID-19 will turbo-charge this potential." 

Payne, incidentally, remains confident that the Tokyo Games will go ahead in 2021.

"I am very confident," he said. "I believe that the health crisis will be brought under control by spring 2021 to allow people to travel again. Maybe it will be a Games staged with greater control of health protocols - the Olympic World came to terms with a new world for security controls post Munich 1972; the world will now adjust to a new protocol to deal with health."

Estanguet, meanwhile, believes Paris 2024 can provide an influential template for future Games.

"Every edition tries to improve from the point where the Games were four years earlier," Estanguet said. "So I would say it is a continual way to improve. The Olympic Agenda 2020 and the New Norm have already started to change the Games, so there is a collective intention now to improve the model.

"It is great that the Organising Committee of Paris 2024 could be the one to benefit from this new intention to really adapt the Games for tomorrow. So it makes sense today, and this crisis will reinforce the way we have to adapt, we have to improve the means, to optimise, to bring different ways of seeing, to question things that haven’t changed for a long time.

"I think what is really important at the moment is the way the Games can help in social reconstruction. I think that in society, sport has a really strong power and this power is not always recognised. I am sure what we build in this situation is important in terms of health, in terms of social meaning I really believe in the legacy that the Games can bring to the local community.

"We don’t have just to focus on the operation of the Games, we have to put even more energy into seeing how we can reinforce the legacy, the daily role of sport in society. That will really give sense to the whole project. It is somewhere where we can really make a difference - and this pandemic, to me, has opened a new window for us in this regard."