A floating running track on Paris’ River Seine is a sensational enough spectacle in itself. However, the sight of Olympic judoka Teddy Riner out-sprinting the 1996 Olympic 400m gold medallist Marie-José Pérec made the image an indelible one.
The giant Riner’s 100m ‘win’ was one of the numerous activations throughout a two-day festival of sport laid on by the Paris 2024 bid team to celebrate International Olympic Day. It was an event that emphasised the bid’s message: ‘Paris, made for sharing’.
The 1.12 million Parisians who visited the sun-kissed banks of the Seine were offered opportunities to take part in over 30 Olympic sports in the presence of 250 French athletes and Olympians. The aforementioned Riner and Pérec were joined by pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, tennis stars Lucas Pouille and Marion Bartoli, and retired Fifa World Cup winner Lillian Thuram, to name but a few.
In addition to the 100m track on the river, the city permitted trampoline demonstrations in the salubrious surroundings of the Petit Palais museum, and closed parts of the Champs-Élysées on Saturday morning to allow cyclists of all levels to circle the Arc de Triomphe. A pole vault bar was erected on the riverfront, while the gilded Pont Alexandre III housed a makeshift tennis court and a high-diving platform.
Olympic judoka Teddy Riner runs on a floating running track on Paris’ River Seine
Nevertheless, behind the sunshine and laughter there was a steely, serious message from the bid team to show that they are ready for an Olympic Games. The united front - headed by Paris 2024 co-chair Tony Estanguet and the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who arrived at proceedings together on a canoe - was given further political clout by the manifestation of Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France, on the second day.
The charismatic leader of the La République En Marche! party - who has reportedly made the winning of the Games a priority - received a reception from the crowds that is usually reserved for a celebrity or pop star. After a formal handshake with the bid team, Macron removed his exquisitely tailored suit jacket to take part in an ad hoc game of tennis with Pouille and Bartoli on the temporary tennis court. Later in the afternoon, he moved onto the floating track and joined some boxers for a light spar.
Pouille, who at the time of writing is 17th on the ATP’s world rankings, was only told of the knock-up with the president the previous day. He confirmed to SportsPro that Macron’s “forehand was better than his backhand”. Pouille echoed the sentiments of all involved in the bid team by stating that “it is very important to have him [Macron] on board”.
Aside from his physical presence at the event, Macron was vocal in his support, telling crowds that it “is important to show that the head of the state is supporting the bid”. He confirmed his attendance at July’s 2024 Candidate City Briefing for IOC members and International Federations in the Swiss city of Lausanne, and September’s results at the IOC Session in Lima, Peru.
“To me, Paris 2024 is a symbol of pride and optimism,” said Macron. “Paris 2024 is a project with a great vision for the future in France as well as in Europe. Paris 2024 is mobilised through the support of the athletes themselves but also the federations, the amateurs and the volunteers.”
The president also cited his country’s 2016 hosting of the Uefa European Championship as an example of France’s “know-how in the organisation of major events”, and shared his childhood memories of handball star Jackson Richardson and Perec inspiring his own sporting pursuits.
“A positive society is an inclusive society,” he continued. “One of the main French values is universal sprit and it is important to celebrate the universal values of Olympism with such a great celebration on the IOC’s birthday.”
If the Paris 2024 bid is successful, the Games would be held 100 years after the French capital last held the Olympics, a symmetry not lost on Macron. “It would be a great symbol to host the Games in 2024,” he added, “to mark the centenary of our last Games.”
According to Étienne Thobois, the Paris 2024 chief executive, it is not just Paris that will benefit from an Olympic Games. Thobois maintains that “France is a country that loves sporting events” and points out that the soccer tournament will be held across eight different cities while the sailing regatta would take place 776 kilometres south of Paris in Marseilles.
Thobois believes that the Olympic Day commemoration “is exactly what we wanted do” in terms of showcasing the city as a whole, and promoting what it can offer in terms of celebrations and fan zones should their number come up in Peru.
“Today is a taste of what it could be in 2024,” states Thobois. “It is about supporting sport in the heart of the city, with the engagement of the general public. We have kids, athletes and a party atmosphere. It shows the amazing ability for Paris’ city centre to organise big celebration events.
“It is part of the concept of the ‘made for sharing’ bid that will allow sport to come out of the stadium. There is certainly that feeling today.
“[In the past] the great Games were the ones that were able to create an atmosphere in the city - Barcelona on Las Ramblas or Sydney’s Darling Harbour, to name a few. This is something that this city centre can recreate.”
Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France, plays tennis on the Pont Alexandre III
It is, of course, easy to sell Paris as a city, especially under a gin-clear sky. The sumptuous architecture on display - which includes the iconic Tour Eiffel - twinned with endless wide boulevards are picture-postcard. The campaign team have harnessed, or even hijacked, Paris’ landmarks and the bid logo has been displayed on the façade of the domineering Tour Montparnasse since April.
Tony Estanguet - alongside Mayor Hidalgo, who thought that it was “wonderful, exceptional to see all of these people” - was a ubiquitous figure over the two days of Olympic Day activity. The triple Olympic gold medallist, who fulfilled a promise to Hidalgo canoe down the Siene with over 200 children, was seen participating in just about every activation, even if his tennis skills fell well short of President Macron’s.
“To me, it was a fantastic moment to cross Paris on a canoe,” says Estanguet, a former slalom canoeist. “We [the bid team] are very happy. Looking around at the people here today all I can see is smiling faces. International Olympic Day is a great opportunity to engage more and more people and share one of the pillars of our project, which is to celebrate the unique city of Paris with the maximum amount of people.
“My goal is to engage more and more people around this bid - so far the support has been very high. We have not only received support from the sporting community but we have commercial companies, the universities around France, other French cities and regions are lending their support.
“This kind of event is very important to help deliver our bid message of developing the participation of sport. We want to engage our athletes with our kids, and they want to contribute to the success of the Games. This was not always the case, we had to build this dynamic and now there is a momentum, a big wave of support around the bid in the last three years.”
Central to the bid has been the extraordinary access and time that its athlete ambassadors have given up, which has in Estanguet’s words “created a real French team” that is “not just for just for pictures and communications”. The athletes - the vast majority of whom have represented France at Olympic Games - have been involved in the concept process of the bid and have all given their advice on how they can improve the athlete experience, as well as helping chose venues, of which 95 per cent will be existing structures.
A makeshift high-diving platform was one of many Olympic Day activations across the city
Estanguet notes that the Olympic Day “comes at a good time” and reveals that he will share pictures and videos of the event in his presentation to the IOC members in Lausanne because “the images from these two days are better than words”.
The flag-bearer for France at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Estanguet is, like much of the rest of the nation, unabashed in his admiration for Emaneulle Macron. He recalls that the president has been a supporter of the bid from his first day in the office and was eager to attend the Olympic Day celebrations. “He said to me, ‘This sounds fantastic, I really want to be part of it,” Estanguet adds. “’I will attend and I will practice some sport, too.’
“It is great to have the president of France committed to the bid but he is also someone who wants to share his passion for sport, for playing sport,” continues Estanguet. “His involvement is a great symbol that this is a priority to the country.
“He loves sport and he is one of the original members of the sport movement. It wasn't difficult to convince him to come on board. He was available from the start. Following his election victory it was one of the first topics that he wanted to talk about and something that he was keen to push forward.
“Whatever the political bodies, they all want to work together for the benefit of sport. This is fantastic and a real chance for us.”