Geoff Berkeley

Can you imagine 600,000 spectators packed along the River Seine in Paris to witness what is expected to be the most unique Olympic Opening Ceremony in the Games’ history?

With just over two years to go until that dream is expected to turn into a reality on July 26, 2024, it is difficult to foresee after recent security failures in the French capital.

When the Paris 2024 organisers announced last December their sensational plans to take the spectacle out of the stadium and stage it in the heart of the city, there was a sense of excitement coupled with a feeling of uncertainty over how they can pull it off.

Having been lucky enough to join sporting leaders on a boat ride along the River Seine during last month’s Global Sports Week in Paris, I was struck by the beauty of the capital as I passed major landmarks including a spectacular Eiffel Tower that glittered in the night.

Athletes are expected to enjoy the same jaw-dropping experience when they travel in one of the 160 boats that are planned to take the six-kilometre route during the Parade of Nations.

About 60,000 fans would normally be permitted inside an Olympic Stadium for an Opening Ceremony but Paris 2024 expects to invite 10 times that number for its city-centre showpiece event.

Many of those will not need to purchase tickets, with spectators accessing the upper quays allowed to go free, according to organisers.

At least 600,000 spectators are expected to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Paris 2024
At least 600,000 spectators are expected to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Paris 2024

It seems almost too good to be true and after major events held in the capital over recent days highlighted organisational failures and heavy-handed policing, the ambitious Opening Ceremony plans now look like a fanciful idea unless urgent action is taken to address issues.

Ensuring the safety of those in attendance had already been flagged as a major concern, with security officials in French reportedly requesting a limit of 25,000 spectators.

It was reported by the Agence France-Presse last year that organisers and Paris City Hall had argued for two million people to attend the ceremony.

Paris 2024 settled on "at least 600,000 spectators" but many may question whether to join such a mass event when considering the shocking scenes that unfolded prior to the UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid on May 28.

Fans from both clubs flocked to the Stade de France - a key Paris 2024 venue which is due to host athletes and rugby sevens competitions during the Olympics.

But thousands of supporters were denied access, forcing the match to be delayed by 36 minutes, as French police used tear gas and pepper spray to stop them from entering the stadium.

There have been harrowing accounts from those that made the trip to Paris, claiming they were mugged, assaulted and harassed by gangs of local youths outside the ground.

It also brought back memories of the Hillsborough disaster 33 years ago when 97 Liverpool fans died after a devastating crush inside the Sheffield stadium.

"It’s just everything that happened at Hillsborough has been mirrored,” Lou Brookes, whose brother Andrew died in the 1989 tragedy, told the Guardian.

"My friends were caught up in it [on Saturday] and one had her phone stolen, and another told me he really thought he was going to die.

"These are people who have been going to games for 40-odd years, since they were six or seven."

Liverpool fans were not alone in expressing their dismay with Real Madrid supporters - who had witnessed their side triumph 1-0 to clinch a 14th Champions League title, experiencing the same bottleneck security checkpoints and coming under attack from thugs.

The immediate response from UEFA and French Ministers has been rightly criticised after they quickly blamed thousands of fake tickets on the disruption.

Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra claimed approximately 30,000 to 40,000 people who came to Paris either had no tickets or fake tickets and believed 2,500 tickets were falsely sold to supporters.

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner demanded an apology for Oudéa-Castéra’s "irresponsible, unprofessional and wholly disrespectful" comments as he insisted fans were "treated like cattle".

After facing questions from a French Senate Committee, Oudéa-Castéra and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin apologised to Liverpool fans but defended the handling of events.

Liverpool fans were pepper-sprayed by police as French officials and organisers of the UEFA Champions League came under scrutiny ©Getty Images
Liverpool fans were pepper-sprayed by police as French officials and organisers of the UEFA Champions League came under scrutiny ©Getty Images

Senators leading the hearing admitted the ugly scenes "sparked strong concerns about its ability to organise international competition with a high level of security" as France prepares to stage the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics as well as next year’s Rugby World Cup.

An independent review has also been commissioned by UEFA in a bid to "identify shortcomings and responsibilities of all entities involved in the organisation of the final".

The review "aims at understanding what happened in the build-up to the final and determining what lessons should be learned to ensure there is no repeat of the actions and events of that day",

Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet also stressed that "we must learn all the lessons" from the Champions League fiasco and said that 20,000 private security agents would be part of the Games.

"By 2024 we will have been working on this for five years, we will be ready," said Estanguet.

"A year ago, we signed a security protocol with the state outlining the numbers of police necessary for the organisation of the Games, the role of each one, between what Paris 2024 must do, but also the forces of order, the Ministry of the Interior, the army, the local police.

"All the decisions that we have made, especially the Opening Ceremony on the River Seine, have been made with security in mind."

Security guards remove a protestor who tied herself to the net during a men's singles semi-final at the French Open ©Getty Images
Security guards remove a protestor who tied herself to the net during a men's singles semi-final at the French Open ©Getty Images

Worryingly for Paris 2024 organisers the Champions League chaos is not an isolated incident as there were concerning scenes following France’s Nations League clash with Denmark.

Video footage has emerged showing thousands of fans at a standstill as they tried to exit the Stade de France after Denmark beat France 2-1 on Friday night (June 3).

That day also saw the French Open men's singles semi-final between Casper Ruud of Norway and Marin Cilic of Croatia held up for 10 minutes by a female climate activist who tied herself to the net.

The woman, sporting a T-shirt featuring the message "we have 1,028 days left" alarmingly managed to enter the court unchallenged before attaching herself to the net.

Ruud admitted he was "scared" by the situation as both players were taken off the court while security officials forcibly removed her.

The Roland Garros organisers have clearly failed to learn from past experiences as protestors invaded the court during the men’s singles final in 2009 and 2013.

All these cases of security failures are worrying to see and demonstrate that Paris 2024 officials have a massive task on their hands to avoid a disastrous Opening Ceremony in 782 days’ time.