Tony Estanguet Wants to Redefine the Legacy of the Olympics

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Five years ago, Paris was awarded the right to host 2024 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), rejoiced almost as much as Parisians when it did. After previous host cities Rio and Athens were heavily indebted, the list of cities that wanted to host the Olympic Games was now almost zero. The event itself had suffered from decades of corruption and sexual abuse scandals.

Now, with the Paris Games just two years away, there finally seems a chance to halt the decline, and reclaim some of the glory of the “Olympic movement,” as the IOC calls it.

Tony Estanguet (president of Paris Olympics 2024) is charged with this task. Although he had to manage a global pandemic and an economic crisis while planning the Games for his country, Estanguet, 44, French canoeist who has won three gold medals, appears to always have an optimistic smile.

It is already clear that there have been some changes since the previous Olympics. The vast operation—akin to launching a multinational corporation, and then disbanding it a few years later—is not headquartered in Paris’s glittering center, but in the immigrant-heavy suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest district in all of France. Its budget is a modest four billion euros (about $4.2 billion)—a tiny fraction of the $30 billion Tokyo spent hosting the Olympics last year. Because Paris already has approximately 95% the facilities that Paris will need to host the Games, this is not surprising.

The Olympics have come to define Estanguet’s life: he won gold in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and London in 2012, something that seemed wildly improbable when he was growing up in the provincial Pyrenées town of Pau, that seemed wildly improbable. He says that his three sons are avid athletes.

The weight of expectation is heavy on Estanguet’s shoulders. The Lausanne-based IOC will need to ensure that 2024 Olympics is free from scandals, economic woes and bitter regrets. TIME met Estanguet at the Paris Olympics Headquarters to talk about what it takes to achieve that.

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(This interview has been condensed and edited to make it more concise.

Is it possible for the IOC to have the Paris 2024 image overhaul that it requires?

My responsibility is to preserve the Games at the highest level. Also, we need to enhance the rest of our lives and adapt to the current situation. I’m not an expert in finance, I’m not an expert in construction, I’m not an expert in politics. Sport is a subject I’m very familiar with and I think it can have a major role in the society. There are many big problems, such as economic and health crises. Sport can be a great way to connect people, inspire and allow people to have a happy life.

So what’s different here?

It will be different than the previous Games. I believe it’s a pivotal moment for IOC and Olympic Movement in changing their mind about the philosophy of the Games.

It’s no longer in the number of buildings that you will build. It’s more about how you use this unique moment to inspire, to gather people, to send a message to the world that we still need some moment of unity, of peace, of sport.

You’re planning to Have the opening ceremony [on July 26, 2024]You can take a boat along the Seine to get all the way around Paris. That’s really unusual.

It’s the first time that the opening ceremony will be outside a stadium. That’s important because we want to demonstrate that the Games will be unique and different. Paris 2024 needs to be unique and different. Its monuments, culture and history must be used.

Of course, it’s difficult to deliver this kind of ceremony. This year, we have 878 competing events. Each competition is large. There’s also the athletes’ village with 200 countries living together.

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Paris has hosted such events before.

Never, never, never. It’s hugely complex. It’s 208 countries, 15,000 athletes, 20,000 journalists, 13 million spectators. France will host the largest event ever.

The Paris 2024 logo is a woman’s face around the flame. It’s been really controversial. Many thought that it was sexist.

I’m proud that it’s a human face, and it’s a woman’s face, because for the first time, we will have the same number of athletes—women and men. There will be parity. And I’m so proud of the fact that for the first time we are able to have the same logo for the Olympics and Paralympics.

You’ve had a big sporting career, and now you’re having to negotiate with governments and CEOs. Is it strange that you have made this change?

My canoeing career began as an amateur. After twenty years of hard training, I quit. It’s always a challenge to find a new career, and when I’ve been proposed to be involved in this, it was a fantastic challenge.

In the morning I’m involved with the international federation or with athletes. To bring people on board, I will need to have a meeting with a company. Our organization is a private one, and 98% of our funding came from private sources.

Still fundraising? What amount have you raised thus far?

€4 billion is the total budget of Paris 2024. We’ve already secured two-thirds of it, independent of COVID. We set goals when we formed the organizing committee. By 2021 we should have 60% and by 2022 we need to reach 80%. The project seems to be going smoothly, and I am confident that it will continue its high ambition.

Paris has lost five of the previous Olympic bids. Was there something wrong?

Every attempt was unsuccessful. We improved our proposal. It was the 2012 bid that marked our biggest change. [which was won by London]And now. I was one of the many sportspeople who were involved. As are the director general and director of sport, the director for technology, the director general, is an Olympian. The DNA of our team is strong and comes from the sportspeople. It is possible to choose your team and who you want to work with.

Naturally, I will have finance people, businesspeople because they are necessary to manage the budget. However, I promised that there would be sportspeople in my organization. It’s not a political organization. It’s a sports competition organization.

You have been forced to enter politics. You supported the idea of banning the participation of Russia’s and Belarus’ athletes in 2024.

It’s not yet decided, right? It’s not my role to make these decisions, it’s the IOC’s decision. To apply pressure, however, I support the position taken by the international sporting movement in the recent months.

The international fight against war has a dynamic. And that’s something strong that we’re able to deliver, in a way. It’s not our role to be involved in these political matters. But I’m proud that we’re also able to contribute to the international dynamic.

Russian athletes were allowed to compete in Tokyo, but not under Russia’s national flag, because of the doping scandal. The situation has been confusing and ambiguous. At what point do you need to make a decision about Russia’s participation in Paris in 2024?

This summer, the qualification process for different countries will begin and finish one month prior to the Olympic Ceremony in July 2024. The time is available, and there are no deadlines. It is important to not know whether Russia will be participating in Paris 2024. It’s more about when this conflict will end, and how we can contribute to a positive end with this war. That’s the major priority.

I assume you’ve had some pretty anxious times since you got the job in 2017. Tokyo Olympics was completely disrupted due to the pandemic. Now we are in a European war. What kind of contingency plans have you made, if the war spreads, or there’s another global pandemic?

It is important to be flexible and mindful. I’ve been impressed by our Japanese colleagues who were able to postpone the project for a year. It’s so complex to fix everything. There are always solutions. Mentally, I believe we must be ready for it.

You’ve also situated yourself in the heart of Seine Saint-Denis, the poorest part of all of France. Why?

The vision that we shared when we made the decision to bid for Games was this: To leave a different legacy. We are not referring to the legacy of great venues. But how it can benefit a people. Education programs are available, and we also have a plan for employment. We will include local businesses in the tenders. In Seine Saint-Denis, two-thirds are residents. Volunteer opportunities will be available for this population.

Your budget is about one-tenth that of Tokyo Olympics. When you go out and speak to big business now—when things aren’t going well economically—do you have to make a hard sell to get them on board?

We currently have 95% existing venues. We’ll build 10 times less than the past edition of the Games.

For business, they know it’s a unique opportunity: In terms of exposure, in terms of motivation for people working in the company, it’s just unique to be involved in the Olympic torch relay, to be volunteering, to be involved in organizing the Games. It is used by many of them internally as an effective way to hire people. For business it’s really a challenge to keep the best talent, and these kinds of projects are very important.

The billions of dollars that will be invested in them also benefits them. Take, for example: [French energy giant]EDF will be our partner. We will make use of their electricity. After that, they’ll be able demonstrate that they can provide 100 percent from renewable energy.

100% sustainable?

Green electricity will indeed be used to power the Games. We’ve promised to cut the carbon footprint in half from the London Olympics in 2012: That was the reference, the greenest Olympics until now.

We’re building 10 times fewer venues, we will use public transportation, with all competition venues in public transportation-accessible areas. Local food is becoming more popular. We’re already working with different companies to develop a new approach. Less meat, more vegetarian—a really new approach.

Are you a vegetarian yourself? It’s very un-French not to eat meat.

Ha! Ha! I have been educated by my team. I’m flexitarian.

Parisians complain a lot. However, they have remained supportive of the Olympics. However, you hear a lot of complaints about the redesign of the entire city. Blocking the Trocadero and the Champs-Elysées [key areas around the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower]Traffic. That is often linked to the Olympics even though it was in place before Paris hosted the 2024 Olympics.

No long-term plan has been imposed for the Games’ use. These areas will be used temporarily and will not have any impact on the Games beyond the initial two-months of usage. It’s the Mayor of Paris’ vision [Anne Hidalgo]He was chosen with the clear goal of decreasing car ownership and creating more bicycle parking spaces. It is up to us to be respectful.

Many of these projects were first decided in 2010. They were to be completed by 2020, 2022 and 2023.

Many people have grown very skeptical about the Olympics. It’s seen as wasteful. It is rare for cities to want to host the Games. Are you optimistic or sceptical that Paris will change the way people view the Olympics?

Yes, I want it. I believe it’s needed in our society. It’s important to have this moment of gathering the world, an inspiring, positive moment. It’s had a big impact on my life, and I’m sure it can have a big positive impact on many lives.

The Paris Games will host its third edition. It was the first in 1900, 1924 and 2024. 100 years ago, 14 nations were competing.

Paris 2024, Los Angeles (2028), Brisbane (2032). That’s a very different set of cities that we have had the last 20 years or so, with Beijing, Rio, Sochi. What should be changed in Olympic politics?

Relay racing is the Olympic motto. The success of the preceding ones builds on the others. The Olympic movement’s strength is its universality. Sport must be spread all over the globe.

That’s also a message of our concept in Paris 2024: Sport has to be spectacular. The stadium isn’t the only place where sport should be. We’ll be at the Chateau Versailles. We’ll be visiting museums. We’ll be on the streets. Our presence will be all-encompassing. That’s really a vision of how sport can have an impact on society, by being everywhere. It’s good that we have a new chapter, in France, then the U.S. and Australia. I’m sure that those three countries will add something different—some new creativity and some new technology, probably.

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