Paris Olympics triathlon may not feature swimming amid ‘alarming’ Seine water quality

Athletes dive into the Seine during the Olympic test event in August 2023
Athletes swam in the Seine during the Olympic triathlon test event in August 2023 - Getty Images/Bertrand Guay

Organisers of Paris 2024 have admitted that the triathlon events could be postponed or become a duathlon for the first time in Olympic history because of pollution in the Seine river.

With barely 100 days until the start of the Olympic Games on July 26, a French water charity has warned about the “alarming” state of the Seine and the “risks faced by athletes moving in contaminated water”.

Tony Estanguet, the president of Paris 2024, admitted on Tuesday that E. coli was “one of the bigger challenges” facing the organisers and, while “very confident” that the water quality will sufficiently improve, disclosed that contingencies were in place.

Great Britain has major gold medal hopes in all three triathlon events - the men’s, women’s and mixed relay - but athletes who have spent four years peaking for a specific date have been warned that their races could be moved at short notice.

And, if the water quality remained below the required levels throughout the Games, the event would simply be held without the swimming component and become a run-bike-run duathlon.

“In sport, there’s a risk - there’s always a risk,” said Estanguet, who stressed that there was “only one location” and no question of finding a back-up venue.

Estanguet, who is himself a triple Olympic champion in canoeing, said that uncertainty was part of open water sport and pointed out that the triathlon test events took place last summer in the Seine, which were respectively won by Great Britain’s Alex Yee and Beth Potter.

The men’s and women’s triathlon have also been deliberately scheduled for relatively early in the Games, on July 30 and July 31, to allow for plenty of reserve days. The mixed relay, which Great Britain won in Tokyo, however, is in the second week on Aug 5 while the marathon swimming races, which will also take place in the Seine, are scheduled for Aug 8 and 9 just a few days before the closing ceremony on Aug 11.

The Surfrider Foundation said that its measurements between September 2023 and March 2024 had shown levels of two bacteria – E. coli and enterococci – were often double and sometimes three times higher than the maximum European permitted amounts. The bacteria indicates the presence of faecal matter. “If it’s not suitable, we postpone and change the date,” said Estanguet. “There is a final decision where we could not swim - it’s part of the rules of the international federation [World Triathlon]. It’s what we want to avoid, of course, but the first part of the contingency is to postpone the dates. That’s why we have programmed the triathlon at the beginning of the Games.”

‘The quality is getting better and better’

Paris authorities believe that the situation will be significantly improved by a major new storm water facility due to be inaugurated later this month.

Organisers also stress that the current pollution levels, which follow one of the wettest in 30 years, are likely to be very different in the summer months. Heavy rainfall is known to overwhelm Paris’s sewage system and cleaning up the Seine is intended to be one of the key long-term legacy achievements of the Paris Olympics. “With the authorities, there is a big programme of investment,” said Estanguet, who was appearing at the SportAccord conference in Birmingham. “The Seine will be in much better condition after the Games than it was three or four years ago. The quality is now assessed and it’s getting better and better. You speak to a former canoeist - I know quite well the water quality of the rivers in my country - and it’s great to have this kind of legacy.”

Parisian state official Marc Guillaume said that the winter testing of the Seine was not comparable to the condition that Olympics swimmers will face in July and August. “There has never been a question of opening the Seine for swimming all year round,” he said.

Estanguet said that there was also confidence in Paris’s £350 million security plans for an Olympics that will begin with an opening ceremony along the Seine that will be open to the public within a sealed perimeter manned by 45,000 police and security personnel.

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