The Paris 2024 Olympic Games (OG) won’t be coming to the heart of Marseille for a little over a year, after the Olympic torch enters its Old Port on May 8, 2024. And yet, if it weren’t for the metal barriers surrounding the Roucas-Blanc marina renovation site and the white dust blown by the easterly wind emanating from it, you’d think you were there already.
From July 9 to 16, in scorching heat, the southern harbor of France’s second-largest city will be the site of the first test event which will enable the 2024 Olympic Games organizers to put their skills to the test. In the ten Olympic sailing disciplines – dinghies Ilca 6 (women), Ilca 7 (men) and 470 (mixed), double-handed skiffs 49er (men) and 49er FX (women), Nacra17 (foil catamaran, mixed), IQFoil (windsurfing, men and women) and kitefoil (a foil towed by a kite, men’s and women’s) – 350 athletes representing 55 countries will compete on the five “regatta rings” in the competition area in the same weather conditions that await them, more or less, this time next year.
“It’s traditional for the host country to organize a year before the Olympics for the sake of fairness for the competitors, a ‘number zero’, a full-scale model of what the regattas will be like,” explained Cédric Dufoix, who is in charge of the Marseille and Nice venues for Paris 2024. Unlike an athletics stadium or a swimming pool, which can be reproduced identically anywhere in the world, each Olympic water surface has its own specific characteristics, particularly in terms of currents and winds.
For the past two years, around a hundred nations have been training regularly in Marseille to get to grips with water influenced by the surrounding terrain and islands. In addition to France, some of the great Olympic sailing nations (Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand) have even opened permanent bases here. “The test event allows countries that don’t have the means to be here full-time to sail for at least a few days, in real conditions, before the main event,” said Dufoix.
‘We want finals and podiums’
“This test event is clearly the sporting objective of the year for us,” declared Philippe Mourniac, director of the French Olympic sailing team, at a press briefing. “We’re not going to pretend we’re here to try out new equipment, we’re aiming for finals and podiums,” insisted national technical director Guillaume Chiellino, adding that this Marseille leg will weigh heavily on the Olympic selection, to be unveiled in a few months’ time.
Above and beyond the sporting aspect, organizers must ensure that the marina is operational and that the technical, medical and safety systems at sea are flawless. The Préfecture Maritime de Méditerrannée, which is charge of safety at sea, has taken into account “the problems of possible penetration of the race perimeter, whether in the air, at water level or underwater,” explained Dufoix to Le Monde.
But, as for the 2024 Olympic events, this dress rehearsal has gambled on the peaceful cohabitation between competitors and those who enjoy the beach and sea. Unlike the last three editions of the Olympics, the organizers have set out restrictions, but not a general ban.
A vast “red” perimeter has been reserved for competitors and coaches. They comprise of the five navigation zones for the events, three of which are very close to the coast, and is closed to all boats from July 9 to 16, from 8 am to 8 pm.
Beach closures contested
These provisions are particularly opposed by the Nageurs du Prado collective, which, in association with other groups of offshore swimmers, unfurled banners near the Olympic site late on Saturday morning to contest them: “No to the closure of beaches for the Paris 2024 Sailing Olympics in Marseille,” “No to speed machines on the beaches! Marseille is not a kitefoil spot!”
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The demonstrators hope to push the relocation of the Olympic kitefoil event away from the beach and “to a suitable spot,” in Hyères, southeast of Marseille, or on Lake Serre-Ponçon, north of Marseille, so that the people of Marseille can continue to enjoy the local beaches. It’s a wish that is likely to remain unfulfilled.
“Organizing the Olympic Games in Marseille means we’ll have to work a little harder for a few days,” admitted Dufoix. “For example, the much-loved shuttle that runs between the Old Port and Pointe-Rouge won’t be able to make its usual circuit for a few days, and cruise ships will also be diverted a little, but we’re using a small 10% of Marseille’s beaches, and everyone is starting to accept and prepare for these issues that won’t last very long.”
No spectator facilities are planned for this test event, but the regattas will be widely visible from the Corniche Kennedy and the beaches. “We’ll be deciding this autumn and winter on the accommodation options for the 12,000 ticketed spectators per day,” said Dufoix. “For the time being, the options – grandstands, spectator boats at sea – remain open, but one thing is certain, there will be giant screens to follow the regattas and experts who will comment for the public.”