The difficult genesis of the St-Denis Olympic Aquatic Center inaugurated by Emmanuel Macron

The difficult genesis of the St-Denis Olympic Aquatic Center inaugurated by Emmanuel Macron

The end of a long soap opera. French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the Olympic Aquatic Center on Thursday, the only permanent sports site built for the Olympic Games. The infrastructure, located opposite the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, had a difficult start, with an extended bill but disappointing reception possibilities.

The Olympic village, the Marseille Marina… One by one the inaugurations follow one another in preparation for the Paris Olympics which begin on July 26. Thursday April 4, Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the Olympic Aquatic Center of Saint-Denis, which will host the synchronized swimming, diving and water polo events of the Paris Games. An old French project whose genesis was eventful.

The French president stressed that this site, the only permanent one built for next summer’s Olympic Games – to which we could however add the Arena Porte de la Chapelle which also received funding thanks to the Games – “will make it possible to learn how to swimming”, a “challenge” because “there is still a lot of injustice in this area”.

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This will therefore be an important legacy for Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France where one in two students does not know how to swim when entering sixth grade, according to the public authorities.

But the Saint-Denis nautical center, delivered a month in advance, will not be used for the online swimming events. A paradoxical situation which arouses incomprehension among some. The latter will in fact take place at the Arena La Défense, in Nanterre, with two temporary pools which, at the end of the Games, will be installed in two other towns in Seine-Saint-Denis, Sevran and Bagnolet.

Almost doubled the cost

There are difficult births. That of this infrastructure was much better than expected. In the application file, the Olympic swimming pool was to cost less than 70 million euros, a cost refined to 90 million euros in the final project submitted in September 2017. Seven years later, it will ultimately have cost nearly 175 million euros, but its spectator capacity is too small to host future swimming world championships

“This swimming pool story is of unprecedented originality in the history of the Olympic Games. We tinkered with something to satisfy the financial balance but, in the end, France will not have an Olympic swimming pool”, summarizes AFP Armand de Rendinger, a consultant specializing in the Olympic movement, who explains that we have to go back more than 20 years to understand.

In 2001, in Moscow, during the award procedure for the 2008 Olympic Games, France was a candidate, “but without any chance of winning”, says Armand de Rendinger. The purpose of this application is to “prepare for that of 2012”. An unfortunate attempt since it was London which won the organization.

At this time, the project emerged to build an Olympic swimming pool, which was sorely lacking in French swimming. He will stand out like an Arlesian every time France bids for the Summer Olympics.

“Except that, when we won in Lima in 2017, we had to delve more seriously into the promises, including that of the swimming pool,” recalls Armand de Rendinger.

A puzzle project

Very quickly, the project turned into a headache. A report from the Financial Inspectorate warned in 2018 of a probable fairly significant overrun, estimating the cost at nearly 260 million euros. Impossible given budgetary constraints. “It was therefore necessary to reduce the size of the swimming pool at all costs,” explains Armand de Rendinger.

Substitution scenarios are then put on the table. “We knew quite quickly that there was a problem,” recalls David Roizen, expert with the Jean-Jaurès foundation.

Two manufacturers are joining the ranks, Vinci and Bouygues. It is the second, at the head of a consortium, which pockets the lot in April 2020, for 175 million euros, but with one box less compared to the specifications: there can only be 5,000 spectators. Too little for the International Federation which imposes a minimum of 15,000 places for world-level swimming events, de facto excluding France for swimming worlds and the Olympics.

A legacy to grow

The Olympic Aquatic Center (CAO), connected to the Stade de France by a footbridge spanning the A1 motorway, will therefore host artistic swimming, diving and water polo qualifying events, and not line swimming, which is the king of the Games.

As a consolation, the CAO will host the European swimming championships in 2026, a first since 1987 for France, as well as the French diving pole.

Built under project management by the Métropole Grand Paris, the 20,000 m2 building, with a low-carbon wooden structure, will offer four pools: learning pool, fun pool, competition pool and diving pool.

“It remains a huge step forward for knowing how to swim in Seine-Saint-Denis, for one of the departments with the worst facilities,” assures an elected official on condition of anonymity.

A handful of new swimming pools, such as the Marville complex in La Courneuve, and renovated pools for the region were also born from these Olympics. “Thanks to the Games and the two swimming pool plans initiated with the department, 18 new pools out of ten swimming pools have been built or renovated, which can be bequeathed to the residents,” indicates the Élysée

It remains to make them bear fruit.

With AFP

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