Paris 2024 CEO Etienne Thobois on corruption claims, Olympic security and delivering legacy: ‘We walk the talk’

Paris organising committee CEO Etienne Thobois in a press conference (Getty Images)
Paris organising committee CEO Etienne Thobois in a press conference (Getty Images)

On a summer’s morning in June last year, French police arrived unannounced at the house of the Paris 2024 CEO, Etienne Thobois. They rummaged through his possessions and seized documents as part of synchronised raids on the organising committee headquarters, and the offices of companies awarded contracts to help deliver the Games.

The investigation into “illegal conflict of interest, misuse of public funds and favouritism” remains ongoing, and no charges have been brought against Thobois or anyone else involved. There has been no public statement in months, and when The Independent contacted the French National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF) last week, we were told that the inquiry “continues with analysis by investigators of the numerous documents seized” and is unlikely to conclude before the Olympics begin.

It would be natural to be cynical, especially when corruption was uncovered at the heart of both the Rio and Tokyo Games. But PNF director Jean-Francois Bohnert said that he does not expect to uncover “the most serious cases of corruption”, and Thobois is adamant that the Paris Olympics are a clean operation and will be proved so.

“From the start, we put in all kinds of processes in order to be exemplary,” he tells The Independent. “Then it is normal [that] we’re very much controlled. We have all kinds of control in various areas, and it’s a good thing. So it’s part of an inquiry. I cannot tell you more because I don’t know more.”

Thobois was a founder of marketing agency Keneo, which was awarded €2m in contracts linked to Paris’s Olympic bid. He says he ended all involvement with Keneo before those deals were ever discussed. “I actually sold all my [shares] before taking the job of CEO of the bid committee so I don’t have any relation with the company since, I think, 15 June 2015.”

He was shocked when investigators came to his home. “It was a surprise,” he says. “I guess it’s part of the job, let’s put it that way.”

Thobois is sitting in his office at Paris 2024 headquarters just a few months out from the start of the Games. The investigation has been an unwelcome distraction from what has otherwise been a relatively smooth build-up to these Olympics. It is about this time in the Olympic cycle when everything tends to go wrong: think of Tokyo’s spiralling costs, Zika fears before Rio, the G4S security scandal before London. Excitement tends to give way to a creeping sense of anxiety.

A view of the inside of an apartment of the Athletes’ Village in Saint-Oue (AFP/Getty)
A view of the inside of an apartment of the Athletes’ Village in Saint-Oue (AFP/Getty)
IOC president Thomas Bach, right, and Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet visit the Olympic Village in December (Getty)
IOC president Thomas Bach, right, and Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet visit the Olympic Village in December (Getty)

So no wonder Thobois is smiling as he describes the air of calm around these Olympics. Nearly 8 million tickets have been sold, with only a few venues struggling to sell out – mostly football stadiums outside Paris. The few pieces of infrastructure being built for the Games are on schedule. The two biggest building projects, the Olympic Village and the Aquatic Centre, will open in the coming weeks.

This streamlined Olympic plan was at the heart of Paris’s successful bid, in which Thobois’s team promised not to build an army of white elephants but to harness the city’s current facilities to deliver a Games using 95 per cent existing or temporary venues. Given most of the venues are close to the centre of Paris, there was no need to build vast new transport networks either. “The infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, is something we don’t have to worry about in respect to previous games, so that’s already a fantastic relief,” says Thobois.

This is what Paris hopes will make these Games unique, by creating an Olympics woven into the existing fabric of the city. Hundreds of thousands of spectators will line the River Seine for an opening ceremony brought out of the usual stadium environment and laid out in Paris itself. The cycling road races will pass through the centre of the city, as will the marathons, which for the first time will also see 40,000 ordinary runners tackle the route, hours after the official men’s race has concluded. “It will be probably the first Games where we will be really at the heart of the city,” says Thobois.

Security is at the heart of everything we do ... not one stone has been left unturned

Etienne Thobois

Another pillar of Paris’s bid was that any investment would be focused on Seine-Saint-Denis, a deprived northern suburb and the second poorest neighbourhood in France, an area of high crime and poverty, and low education and life expectancy. It is unsurprisingly not a hotbed for swimming, with only 50 per cent of children under 11 able to swim. But this is where the brand new £150m Paris 2024 Aquatic Centre has been built, along with nine new training pools across the region, with the aim of transforming local lives.

“I think about 90 per cent of the infrastructure budget went to Seine-Saint-Denis,” says Thobois. “That’s where we built the [athletes’] village, the media village, the Aquatic Centre, training centres. It is definitely a physical legacy completely concentrated in Seine-Saint-Denis, because that’s where the big needs were. We are here in Seine-Saint-Denis, our headquarters, we are employing people from the area… so we walk the talk.”

Thobois speaks passionately about the impact the Olympics can have on the wider world. As a talented badminton player, he competed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. What most struck Thobois was the feeling of entering the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony in front of 80,000 people and billions more on TV, as Muhammad Ali famously defied Parkinson’s disease to light the torch. “That particular moment makes you realise that sport is more than just sport, and that the Olympic Games are more than just a sporting event. It is something beyond that. And with the world that we’re living in right now, with all the tension with all that’s happening, I think the Olympic movement is needed more than ever.”

A man walks past the Olympic rings in front of the Paris City Hall (Getty Images)
A man walks past the Olympic rings in front of the Paris City Hall (Getty Images)

Perhaps the greatest threat to his mission is security. The Games come less than a decade after the deadliest terrorist attack in French history which occurred in multiple sites across Paris, leaving deep scars and a city on edge. Last year, six nights of rioting after the killing of Nahel Merzouk followed months of protests which occasionally spilt over into violence. Another warning came at the 2022 Champions League final, where choatic scenes left question marks over the ability of French police to handle major events. “The image of France is at stake,” Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet said recently.

Thobois knows no Olympic Games can guarantee safety, but he has faith in the comprehensive security operation for Paris 2024. “Security is at the heart of everything we do,” he says. “There is a huge plan that is being put in place. Tens of thousands of people are going to be implemented and not one stone has been left unturned. It is not about being confident, it is about being thorough, and to limit the risks that will always remain.”

It is hard to imagine that the greatest sporting show on earth, hosted by one of the great European cities, will be anything other than a rip-roaring success. But the investigation into the organising committee’s conduct still lingers in the background and it will hang over the Games themselves. It remains shrouded in secrecy and even Thobois has little knowledge of when those questions might be answered. “That’s all I know – they came and looked and they did their job, and we’re fully cooperating. And that’s all I can say.”