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Is it true that, in the absence of an Olympic swimming pool with sufficient capacity, the swimming events “will take place in a rugby stadium”? – Liberation

“The Olympic swimming pool that will never see the Olympics.” This is how that a TF1 journalist presented (wrongly) the Olympic Aquatic Center on Tuesday. This project, which will create the only permanent site built specifically for the Paris 2024 Games, had previously been the subject of numerous comments on social networks. Accumulating more than five million views between them, the publications on Press briefs et Carving thus suggest that the structure will have cost 174 million euros… for nothing. These tweets report, for good reason, that “the online swimming events will take place in a rugby stadium”. Leaving many Internet users wary and struggling to imagine how an Olympic pool can be installed on a patch of lawn.

The information, which is in fact nothing new, comes from an article in L’Express, published last week. “The online swimming events will not take place at the Olympic Aquatics Center, but in a rugby stadium,” it reads. The magazine recalls that this Olympic site, which is to be inaugurated on April 4 just opposite the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis (Seine-Saint-Denis), was initially to host all the swimming, synchronized swimming and diving events. . Except that the so-called “racing” or “line” swimming events have since been “relocated” to some extent. What we have known since 2020. The work of Express journalists is not based on a revelation, but goes behind the scenes of this “transfer”.

Unrealistic amount

Moreover, there should be no mistake: the best swimmers in the world will compete, not in a stadium strictly speaking, but inside Paris La Défense Arena, in Nanterre (Hauts-de-Seine ). A vast enclosure with a roof and multimodal, capable of transforming in a few hours from a rugby field to a concert hall. Best known for hosting, since its opening in 2017, both shows and matches of its resident club, Racing 92, it will be temporarily transformed into an Olympic swimming pool for the occasion. In the neighboring department, the Olympic Aquatic Center will host the synchronized swimming and diving events and the water polo qualifying phases.

Why have the methods of organizing aquatic events evolved in this way, leaving the events which arouse the least popular enthusiasm to the site built in Seine-Saint-Denis? Initially, it was planned that “with a capacity of 15,000 spectators during the Games, the Aquatic Center will host the swimming, diving and synchronized swimming events”, we read in the first volume of the application file filed in 2016. At the stage of the third stage of the application filethe “seating capacity” of the site was even estimated at 17,000. On the financing side, at the time of filing of the second phase of the application file, public expenditure for the construction of the Aquatic Center was estimated at some $123 million (in 2016 value), or around 110 million euros. A sum consistent with that which appears in the “stabilized financial model” established in 2018 by Solideo, the public establishment in charge of Olympic infrastructures. Placed in annex to the finance bill for 2019the model predicted a total project cost of 111.2 million euros, divided into 90 million for the Saint-Denis Aquatic Center and 21.2 million for the footbridge connecting it to the Stade de France.

But this amount quickly proved unrealistic, because it took into account neither the updating of prices (since it had been set at October 2016 values), nor the effects linked to the economic situation in the construction industry. In fact, from March 2018, a report from the General Inspectorate of Finance pointed out risks of exceeding the budget, revealing that the cost of the Aquatic Center “could exceed 260 [millions d’euros]”, and therefore warned of necessary cost-saving measures. And this is how the ambitions of the organizing committee for the Olympic Games (Cojop) were revised downwards: to stay as close as possible to the initial budgetary envelope, the construction of a more “modest” enclosure was privileged. Selected in April 2020, the Bouygues construction group’s project is based on a complex whose capacity will reach 5,300 seats during the Games. Its total cost (which includes the concession but also provisions for risks and contingencies as well as deconstruction and decontamination work on the site) amounts to 174.7 million euros, including 147 million spent on the Aquatic Center and 21 million to connect it to the Stade de France.

15,000 places, “a guideline and not a rule”

Overall, the budget is not completely met, but we remain closer to the original 111.2 million euros than the feared 260 million. This, however, meant that the number of places for spectators at the Olympic events would be divided by three. And, therefore, no longer meets the requirements of World Aquatics, the international swimming federation. Contacted by CheckNews, it confirms “the figure of 15,000 seats for swimming at the Olympic Games”, which remains “a guideline and not a rule”. And the federation welcomes the choice of sites hosting aquatic sports, “meticulously selected to highlight these sports”.

In fact, it was quickly admitted that the complex built in Saint-Denis could no longer fulfill its initial purpose of hosting racing swimming events. A press kit released in 2020, in the wake of the award of the market to Bouygues, already reported that the site “will host waterpolo, diving and artistic swimming events”. To the extent that, adds Cojop to CheckNews, “the Olympic Aquatic Center respects the specifications imposed by the World Aquatics” for these three disciplines. It then remained to find a replacement for the “queen” swimming events. Although it was once considered installing a temporary structure, the Olympic aquatic stadium, the use of an existing site was preferred.

It was in September 2020, during a meeting of the Paris 2024 board of directors, that the choice of Paris La Défense Arena was made. In the press release summarizing this meeting, we read that the board of directors, “invited to deliberate on the principle of better use of already existing sites”, took note (among other things) of the “movement of swimming and water polo finals to Paris La Défense Arena. The revision of the map of competition sites “was launched in spring 2020”, according to different criteria including “cost reduction”, contextualizes a second press release. “The decisions taken in September 2020 […] responded to the need to contain the consequences of the evolution of the cost of the Olympic Aquatic Center, which was obviously undervalued initially. again notes the Court of Auditors in a report submitted to Parliament a year ago.

“Significant reception capacity” of Paris La Défense Arena

But when were the first discussions around a potential organization of swimming events within the walls of Paris La Défense Arena, which was initially to host the gymnastics events? According to L’Express, as early as July 2019, those responsible for the “arena” were consulted by Cojop on their latitude in hosting swimming. “At the end of 2019-beginning of 2020 we are starting to discuss swimming pools,” recalls a spokesperson for Paris La Défense Arena contacted by CheckNews. To his knowledge, other options have been studied, but what appealed to the organization of the Games was in particular “the large capacity” of the hall, knowing that “swimming is one of the most important Olympic sports most followed”, as well as its modularity “which makes it possible to accommodate pools while guaranteeing a sufficient number of seats”.

In December 2022, Cojop and the owners of the room finally concluded a rental contract for several tens of millions of euros. “We rent the room and we provide a small team, but we are not involved in the organization of the event”, which remains the responsibility of Cojop, specifies the same spokesperson. In detail, the room will be made available to the organizing committee throughout the rental period, which runs from May 15 to October 15, with an assembly phase scheduled to take place between May 20 and June 27. On the floor of Paris La Défense Arena – rigid plates covering a synthetic lawn, as in its configuration for concerts – two temporary Olympic pools will then be installed, destined to be dismantled at the end of the Games. And the hall will then be able to accommodate, in this “swimming configuration”, 14,500 spectators, according to Cojop.

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