Security concerns in Paris Olympics clash with promise of open competition

Security concerns in Paris Olympics clash with promise of open competition

PARIS — With just over four months until the Olympics, France’s bold promise of hosting the most open Games in history is being tested by mounting security concerns.

Organizers have scaled back a grand plan to make the Opening Ceremonies on the Seine river widely accessible and “free to most.” And although Paris officials have promoted the 2024 Games locally as “a wonderful party” that will be “open to the city,” some residents say the accompanying restrictions are starting to remind them of pandemic lockdowns.

French officials say hosting such a massive event was always going to require sensitive balancing of openness and public safety. They note that competitions at iconic sites throughout the city are moving forward, as are plans to hold a “marathon for all” on the same course the athletes will run.

But the threat assessment has changed since Paris first embraced its “Games Wide Open” slogan two years ago.

The Israel-Gaza war has prompted a spate of bomb scares, a rise in antisemitic incidents and a renewed fear of radicalization here, while tensions with Russia over its war in Ukraine — and the related bans on the Russian and Belarusian athlete delegations — have elevated the risk of cyberattacks.

A recent pair of thefts of confidential Olympics material has further unnerved officials, who have been preparing for scenarios that include terrorism, catastrophic crowd surges and protests that bring the city to a halt.

Organizers of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics were in Paris this month to get briefed on all the plans and said they were eager to see how it plays out.

“I do hope to be back for the opening,” said Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, adding that she was intrigued to see “how you secure hundreds of thousands of people watching a parade of boats.”

“As we see how the planning about the Opening Ceremonies on the Seine has gone, we might be able to consider doing more open parts of the games within Los Angeles, as well,” said City Council President Paul Krekorian.

But critics say the main takeaway for future host cities may be that it’s better to curtail ambitions from the start.

Reduced access to the Opening Ceremonies

As the perhaps only event guaranteed to capture much of the world’s attention every four years, the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies is under particular scrutiny.

Host nations have typically staged their ceremonies in stadiums, where attendees can be monitored. But the French organizers proudly jettisoned that approach, instead declaring plans for a floating ceremony on July 26, with more than 10,000 athletes moving in boats along a 3.7-mile stretch of newly cleaned-up river through central Paris.

Originally, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said more than half a million spectators would be able to attend — 100,000 ticket holders on the riverbanks and 500,000 fans watching for free from upper platforms. But in his latest account, he reduced the total by half, with 104,000 reserved spots for paying fans and 220,000 free tickets earmarked for selected residents of Paris and other French towns hosting Olympic events.

The changes reflect “the need to make it the most popular ceremony that we can, while managing all the details on the security and the safety side,” French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said at a recent news conference, responding to a question from The Washington Post.

That may make the “open to all” ceremonies a prohibitively pricey proposition for many tourists and non-selected locals. Although organizers have controlled ticket releases to discourage scalping, in a recent round, spots along the Seine went for between about $1,000 and just under $3,000 a piece. Meanwhile, rates for hotels and short-term rentals during the Games have skyrocketed. And public transportation, which the Paris Olympic bid proposed would be free for ticket holders, will instead cost twice the usual fare.

French organizers emphasize that their Opening Ceremonies will still be the largest by far — previous attendance records have hovered near the 100,000 mark.

What are the security concerns?

The top priority for security officials throughout the Games will be to prevent a large-scale terrorist attack, like the coordinated suicide bombings and shootings that killed 130 across Paris in 2015, or the truck that plowed into a crowd in Nice, killing 86 people in 2016. The most recent terrorism incidents in France, though, have all been small-scale knife attacks, and those are considered a particular risk during the Olympics, analysts say.

Cyberattacks are another concern. Some analysts expect 8 to 10 times as many attempts as there were on the Tokyo Olympics three years ago, when 450 million attempts were registered. None of those were successful, but athletes’ health data was leaked in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and a cyberattack disrupted broadcast systems and shut down the Olympics website in South Korea in 2018. Moscow was suspected of being behind both.

French officials are also worried about technology that could facilitate physical attacks, allowing perpetrators to circumvent safety checkpoints and physical barriers. The proliferation of cheap drones that could theoretically be used to drop chemical agents or explosives is a “real threat,” Christian Rodriguez, the head of the domestic-security-focused National Gendarmerie, recently told lawmakers.

“It’s a good idea to want the ceremony to be open and to send a signal that the Olympic Games are not going to be intimidated,” said Peter Neumann, a European terrorism expert. “But of course, undoubtedly, there is a risk.”

French officials will need to prevent a scenario in which the boats carrying over 10,000 athletes and their delegations during the Opening Ceremonies become “fixed targets,” Neumann said.

Particularly close attention will be paid to the Israeli delegation, which may face its biggest Olympic risks since the 1972 Munich Games, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in an attack by members of a Palestinian militant group.

Beyond heading off attacks, French officials are sensitive to the need to avoid a dangerous — and embarrassing — crowd crush like what happened when fans were trying to enter the Stade de France for the 2022 Champions League final and the Stade de Marseille for the Rugby World Cup last year.

Officials are also girding for the potential impact of strikes. A protest by farmers in late January managed to shut down all the major arteries in and out of Paris. In February, striking workers forced the closing of the Eiffel Tower. To avoid disruptive strikes by public workers during the Olympics, the French government has offered to pay them bonuses. But that is probably not the last word on the subject.

What are the security plans?

French officials seek to counter security threats with the deployment of 15,000 soldiers and 35,000 police officers, who will primarily guard public spaces, and up to 22,000 private contractors who are expected to work in and around stadiums and sports facilities.

French lawmakers have also authorized experimental use of artificial intelligence-powered video surveillance that can help detect sudden crowd movements, abandoned objects and someone lying on the ground.

In addition, security staff, volunteers and residents near sensitive sites — around 1 million people in total — will have to undergo special security screenings, Darmanin said. People who live or work near the Seine in central Paris may need to show QR codes to access their homes or businesses before and during the Opening Ceremonies. Some metro stops will be closed, many roads will be blocked to traffic, and car owners near Olympic venues will need to register with the authorities to receive access to their parking lots during the Games.

“You don’t hear much about openness in Paris these days,” said François Heisbourg, a security expert and longtime adviser to French officials.

“Moving around is going to be hell,” he said, acknowledging that he intends to leave Paris during the Olympics.

But even booking an escape from Paris is complicated. The last weekend of July is usually the busiest time of year for travel, as Parisians flee the city and head south for their summer holidays. But France’s National Rail Service isn’t selling train tickets for July 26, the day of the Opening Ceremonies, citing a need for more information from the police.

A wide range of security details is not supposed to become public until shortly before the Olympics.

According to French officials, this includes a Plan B for the Opening Ceremonies. “Given that we’re professionals, there obviously is a Plan B, Plan C, et cetera,” President Emmanuel Macron said in December, without further elaboration.

Thieves have stolen devices with confidential Olympics documents from public workers in two separate cases in recent weeks, officials acknowledged. One man, who stole material that contained plans for canal and road signs, has since been arrested, according to French media reports. No suspect appears to have been arrested in connection with the second theft, which involved access and traffic plans.

Speaking on French television, Laurent Nuñez, the police prefect of Paris, said none of the stolen material was “highly sensitive,” adding that the most critical security plans are “kept in the greatest secrecy.”

Special arrangements are being made for Israel’s delegation, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has confirmed. While Israel has faced calls to be banned from the Paris Olympics over its military campaign in Gaza, Olympics officials say the country’s participation is not in doubt.

Les Carpenter in Washington contributed to this report.



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