Bangladesh's "banker to the poor" Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has been advising on the Paris 2024 Olympics. GETTY IMAGES

Since the early days of Paris's bid for the 2024 Olympics, the city has been receiving advice from a prestigious counsel: Nobel Peace Prize winner and social business guru Mohammed Yunus. Yunus pioneered microcredit in his native Bangladesh from the 1970s, helping lift millions out of poverty by providing traders with small loans to help them start businesses. 

His role in Paris as an advisor and ambassador for socially responsible business is a departure from his usual work: and is all the more surprising given the reputation of the Olympics for embracing mega-projects and corporate sponsors. The 84-year-old admits to not even being a sports fan, according to Agence France-Presse. But he agreed to come on board after accepting a dinner invitation from Paris's Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo in 2016 as she and her team were bidding to host the Games.

"I said to them the simplest thing you can do, before you make any decisions about allocating funds, is ask 'does this item have any social purpose?'" Yunus told AFP. "If it doesn't, not a penny should be allocated.”

He says he quickly saw an opportunity to use the power of the Olympics to spread his message about the importance of embracing new ways of doing business, focusing on solving humanity's problems rather than making profits.

"The moment Paris does something, it becomes globally interesting," he said. "There is public awareness about Paris, the respect they have, their history and how they are known for creativity."

A different village 

Yunus says his ideas fell on fertile ground in the mayor's office and the organising committee, with the city's vision for the 33rd Summer Games being an event with a lower budget and environmental impact compared with previous editions. Only two new sports venues have been built, in addition to the athletes' village. Having visited the village built for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro —a high-rise complex outside the city, with poor public transport links— Yunus knew the pitfalls.

"I saw all these tall buildings, one after another, and I thought 'that's not the right way to do it'," he said.

By contrast, the Paris 2024 village is around 40 low-rise blocs on a brownfield site in one of the poorest parts of northern Paris, with new metro lines, schools and parks as part of the redevelopment plan. Around a third of the 2,800 apartments are set to be converted into social housing once the Olympics and Paralympics wrap up in September. Yunus also urged organisers to consider adding "social businesses will be given priority" to their public tenders for services such as catering.

"All the big companies which are used to winning these tenders read that line and talk to each other and ask: What is a social business? Are we one? Will we get a priority?" he said.

"And the smart CEO will say, 'Okay, since we're not a social business, why don't we have a partnership with one?'. So at least you are bringing them into the picture."

Corporate domination 

Ultimately, the catering contract to provide 40,000 meals a day was won by Sodexo, a listed French multinational with annual sales of more than 12 billion euros ($13 billion). Elsewhere, the usual roster of global blue-chip sponsors will use the Games for promotional purposes, from Japanese carmaker Toyota and global steel maker ArcelorMittal to French luxury empire LVMH. Most of the construction work was performed by France's largest building companies; Bouygues Construction, Eiffage and Vinci. But around the fringes, a desire to use the Games to nurture small, socially-minded companies can be glimpsed, even if they have benefited from only a fraction of the nearly 9-billion-euro budget.

A Paris-based plastic recycling business called Le Pave won a contract to provide 11,000 seats at new Olympic venues, one of around 500 "social businesses" to win tenders. Others included a business that converts building waste into topsoil, which was used at the athletes' village. Laundry services there will be provided by a consortium of nine small local entrepreneurs. On the Games building sites, contractors were also required to use long-term unemployed people for at least 10 per cent of their workforce.

Yunus does not seek credit for any of these initiatives, but he is convinced that by putting his ideas and reputation at the service of the Games, he is helping to encourage change. He has begun advising Milan-Cortina, the Italian host of the 2026 Winter Olympics.

"They whisper in my ears, 'we want to do better than Paris'," he said.