LIFE & CULTURE

Are Olympic Athletes Really Swimming In The Seine?

How clean is the Parisian river, really?
Swimmers dive into the Seine during a Test Event for the women's triathlon for the 2024 Paris Olympics
Swimmers dive into the Seine during a Test Event for the women's triathlon for the 2024 Paris Olympics (Image: Getty)

The 2024 Paris Olympics haven’t even started yet and the organisation is already facing a PR crisis.

While organisers would surely love their mascots or marketing campaigns to be going viral, a more unsavoury aspect of the event has piqued the public’s interest.

In July, the Games will kick off, with the opening ceremony set to be held on the Seine. During the parade, athletes will float down the river, past some of the city’s famous landmarks (including the Musée des Egouts, or the Museum of Sewers) and crowds of adoring spectators. While this is not all too concerning, given the athletes will be in boats, it isn’t the only time the Seine is set to be used in the Olympics.

Despite its beauty, the Seine has a reputation for being a little dirty. But despite swimming in the river having been banned for a little over a century, it is set to host three events during the upcoming Olympics.

The French government had committed to an ambitious US$1.5 billion clean-up project ahead of the Games, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and French president Emmanuel Macron even pledging to swim in it themselves to prove its cleanliness. However, those plans have, quite literally, been soiled by members of the French public following outrage about the cost and concerns for the athletes health.

Questions as to the river’s cleanliness—and accordingly, whether or not Olympians will be able to make it in—also remain up in the air. Ahead, everything we know so far.

The Olympic fleet rehearsing for the opening ceremony in the Seine ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics (Image: Getty)

Is The Seine Clean?

In short, no. The Seine has long been a dumping ground for rubbish, laundry suds and human waste. In the 19th century, factory and human wastewater often ran directly into the river. It continues to collect run off and sewerage when Paris is hit by heavy rainfall, which it has in the past few weeks.

Despite the installation of a (multi-billion dollar) water tank designed to catch said sewerage and prevent it polluting the river, recent tests have shown water from the Seine still contains unsafe levels of bacteria, including E. Coli.

Are Athletes Really Going To Swim In The Seine At The Olympics?

Since the Sydney Games in 2000, several events have been held in open water, and the plan has been that athletes will swim in the Seine for the Paris 2024 triathlon, mixed relay and 10k marathon swimming events.

World Aquatics, the world governing body for swimming, have standards for safe swimming that are set by the World Health Organization. Per the New York Times, these classify “good water quality” as having “less than 500 ‘colony-forming units’ of E. coli per 100 millilitres of water and less than 200 units of enterococci.”

World Aquatics recommends that organisers have contingency plans in case of a drop of water quality on race day. However, there is reportedly no Plan B for Paris 2024, aside from postponing races to allow dirty water time to flow downstream. If the postponed dates are ultimately scuppered, triathlons will reportedly be staged as duathlons instead.

Organisers have been adamant that they will not do anything to put athletes at risk.

Last year, some test events were cancelled due to high levels of E. Coli in the water. Whether or not the Olympic events will actually go ahead remains to be seen.

(Image: Getty)

Did People Really Poo In The Seine?

The French revolutionary spirit is alive and well ahead of the Olympics. After Hidalgo and Macron pledged to swim in the Seine on June 23, a social media hashtag popped up; #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin, which translates to #IShitInTheSeineJune23.

Essentially, thousands of French citizens joked they were going to defecate in the river the day prior to the politicians’ swim. A website was created encouraging Parisians to poo in the Seine, offering information as to when citizens living upstream should do the deed in order to dirty the river as much as possible. While it’s not clear how many people ended up following through on the “plan,” one TikTok user did share a video noting that the Seine looked “super brown” on July 23.

@sagevanalstine

Replying to @_wrong_number_itsnotme the update on the paris poop protest that was happening in the seine! well supposed to happen… #parisseine #seineparis #parisprotest #frenchprotests #parisolympics #parisolympics2024 #protests

♬ original sound – Sage VanAlstine

Ultimately, Hidalgo and Macron cancelled for undisclosed “political reasons.”

Will Anyone Swim In The Seine?

It is currently unclear if Hidalgo and Macron will ever hit the water but at this point, it seems as though Olympic athletes will.

Regardless, the general public will be able to swim in the Seine as soon as 2025, if a plan to clean up the river runs to schedule.

In 2015, the government introduced its plan baignade, or swimming plan, which featured measures to clean up the Seine. The Olympics served to accelerate these actions and the hope is that, following the Games, new public swimming spots will be created along the banks of the Sein.

“There are a lot of people in Paris who don’t know that the Seine is in good health right now. I’m not saying it’s clean, but it’s healthy for aquatic life,” Sandrine Armirail, director of the Maison de la Pêche et de la Nature, an environmental education centre, told National Geographic. “We look at water quality in terms of what’s living in it. The more species you have, the healthier the environment.”

While the plan for a clean river that can be enjoyed by the people of Paris is exciting, whether or not the water will be safe for Australian athletes to swim in remains to be seen.

Related stories