MAY 15 ― We are on countdown here in Paris, less than three months to go before the City of Light opens her doors to the Olympics in late July, followed by the Paralympics Games which run from August 28 to September 8.

It’s been exactly 100 years since she last hosted the games, a piece of trivia I picked up while visiting the Musée Carnevale where they had an enormous decorative vase commemorating the 1924 Paris Olympics on display. Who knew?

It got me thinking that much has changed over a century, cool sports such as skateboarding and surfing now feature, and so too does the threat of Russian cyberattacks shutting down ticket apps stopping fans from accessing events.

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Or worse still, a physical attack from terrorist organisations such as ISIS. At least two have been uncovered since January according to the French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. And since the attack on the Moscow concert hall in March, France is on its highest level of terrorism alert.

What hasn’t changed over the past century, dare I say it, is the River Seine’s questionable water quality where swimming events (might) be held — a quick dip in its cooling waters last summer left my son violently ill with a bacterial infection.

On a more positive note, the general buzz and excitement surrounding the Olympics will be at least equal to that of a century ago, if not more.

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Indeed, 15 million tourists and 10,500 athletes are expected to flock to Paris and beyond for the games that run from July 26 to August 11, spread over 15 Olympic venues.

The government has warned that certain metro stations will close, and that extensive travel restrictions will be in place. Both measures address security concerns, but also form part of the Olympic organisers “climate diet initiative”: to generate no more than half the greenhouse gasses of recent Olympics, such as that emitted by the London Olympics in 2012.

It is also why, the average Parisian, with a Gallic shrug of the shoulder, will tell you: “Moi, je pars.” In other words, they are heading out of the city, away from the perceived chaos that might descend.

Although in their defence, this is exactly what les Parisiens normally do come August — abandon the sweltering city heat for the cooling beach breezes of the Mediterranean Sea — leaving the City of Light and her 15,000 bars and restaurants to the tourists.

None of that nonsense in our household, we’re going to brave the crowds, la chaleur (heat) and Russian cyberthreats with their “weapons of mass disruption”, because we have never been to an Olympics and it’s right on our doorstep!

Fifteen million tourists and 10,500 athletes are expected to flock to Paris and beyond for the games that run from July 26 to August 11, spread over 15 Olympic venues. — AFP pic
Fifteen million tourists and 10,500 athletes are expected to flock to Paris and beyond for the games that run from July 26 to August 11, spread over 15 Olympic venues. — AFP pic

There’s also the small matter of the small fortune we forked out on tickets a year ago for my family of six. We will see three games: women’s and men’s football and hockey, making 18 tickets, each costing on average an eye-popping €60 (RM306), even after choosing the cheapest events on offer.

Like me, everyone is waiting for the tickets to be issued, but in the meantime, I’ve started wearing my “Paris 2024” brooch my French work colleague kindly bought for me. The pretty Paris Olympic emblem is clever: a modern Marianne set on a glossy white background — Marianne symbolises the French Republic’s values of liberty and freedom — with her wavy gold hair shaping her face into a flame. It’s a design apparently chosen to reflect the people-focused Olympics; it is also said that it symbolises women’s emancipation, and a sign that sport and its governing bodies are finally evolving.

Part of this people-driven theme are the buildings being used for the Olympics: roughly 95 per cent are old ones or temporary structures. There are very few new buildings being constructed — a nod to France’s climate diet initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses from concrete and steel manufacturers. Plus, what is being constructed will be reused rather than being a one-use wonder, standing empty, gathering dust long after the athletes have exited its corridors. Several swimming pools being built for the games will be dismantled afterwards and installed in inner-city communities in need of one.

I visited the new tree-lined Olympic village which is being constructed in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of central Paris, for years an impoverished, crime-ridden and forgotten area of Paris of decaying high-rises, locally known as the banlieues.

This village will be used by 6,000 Saint-Denis residents after the games. The Olympic committee has also set aside 4.5 billion euros to transform its 230 square kilometres by building not just a state-of-the-art athletics village, but also new roads, cycling paths, parks and schools, plus a new 5,000-seat aquatic centre, which will become a new sports hub for residents. The government is also talking of beefing up security in the area.

Also putting Seine-Saint-Denis on the map is the Olympic flame, which as part of its epic 68-day Olympic Torch Relay journey across France and its overseas territories, will stop at her doors on July 25 before arriving in Paris, the final destination.

For sure, the Paris Olympics will have its fair share of gleeful critics who will revel in complaining about anything from the heat, the queues, the tight security to the increased price of a baguette.

Whatever, we are lucky enough to be able to attend our very first Olympics, and there will undoubtedly be some unexpected winners. I’m not talking just in terms of Olympic bling, bronze, silvers and golds, but rather the once-in-a-lifetime Olympian legacy of urban and economic renewal for the poverty-stricken banlieues like Seine-Saint-Denis, for whom The City of Light finally casts her shine on.

Perhaps this is the real Olympic magic.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.