It was cheaper to Paris for Thanksgiving this year than it was to fly home to Texas to see my family, so my wife and I packed up our bags and headed across the Atlantic for some pre-Olympic scouting.
While the impetus of the trip wasn’t really about the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympic Games, I have to write this article so I can justify charging the whole thing on the company card (Tiffany don’t @me).
My overall impression was that France is amazing, but Paris is overrated. This was my first time in the City of Lights (though not my first time in the country), and I don’t think I’d need to spend more time in Paris.
And of course all of these observations were made through the eyes of a visitor who was there for only a short period of time. Then again, that’s an apt description of most people who will go to the Olympics for the Games, is it not?
Here were my takeaways as it relates to the Olympic Games:
1) La Defense is going to be a cool venue for swimming – While La Defense arena, which is going to be converted for swimming and water polo at the Olympics, is still very much in concert and rugby mode, I think it’s going to be a cool venue for the sport. It’s located outside of the city center (35 minutes by public transit from the Eiffel Tower), in the La Defense business district. That means the area around it is full of skyscrapers and modern construction and a big shopping mall, though without the old world ‘charm’ of the city center (allegedly). But it’s a big venue that’s going to be iconic from the outside, although indoors it’s going to run into some of the same “is this too big?” questions as the US Olympic Trials venue in a football stadium will – though it’s not quite that cavernous.
2) Are the Olympics Actually Coming? – Paris is one of those global cities that can’t just shut down for a year to prepare for the Olympics, but there were very few signs that the Olympics were actually coming. There was a small pop-up shop selling Paris 2024 official merchandise in Le Marais and one “official sponsor” sign I noticed on a grocery store, but outside of that, there were essentially no signs of the coming Games. No advertisements, no flags, no obvious venue construction. Some of this is by design – the IOC is moving toward a modern version of the Games that are less disruptive to the cities that host them. But if the goal is to energize the local base about the Games (surveys show a generally positive attitude from Parisians), the approach wasn’t with marketing or promotion of the event.
3) French Sporting Culture is Rabid – We went to a top-flight men’s soccer game in Rennes, and it was every bit as enthusiastic of a crowd as we saw at a top-flight soccer match in England. But that’s soccer – will it extend? It certainly did at the volleyball match we attended in the Paris suburb of Robison-Plessis. The crowd was much smaller, but the 1,000-seat venue was sold out, there was a hyperactive supporters group at one end, flags waving, chanting in unison. I didn’t expect that in France, and was pleasantly surprised. I hope they bring that culture to the Games.
4) The Transportation Needs Work – This one has been making huge headlines in France in the last two weeks. Paris just announced that they’re doubling the ticket price on the metro during the Olympics (the service is going to need to be bigger, and local officials say they’re not going to saddle their citizens with that cost). The city’s Mayor also drew a lot of fire by saying that planned upgrades to transportation in the city would not be completed in time for the Games. That drew obvious backlash from the country’s minister of transportation, and IOC officials gave the usual ‘it’s all going to be fine, trust us’ response (that they rarely seem to have to answer for after-the-fact). “We still have problems in daily transport issues and we are still not reaching the comfort and punctuality needed for Parisians,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said. “There are places where the transport will not be ready and there will not be enough trains.” One big area where it’s not going to be ready – the RER-B line that runs to the city’s largest airport, Charles De Gaulle, is still a problem, even with the launch of new high speed trains two weeks ago, and plans to make a direct city-to-airport line have been delayed until after the Olympics.
Sub-plot: Hidalgo also said that plans for the homeless population weren’t going to be ready in time for the Games, but in the areas we were, homelessness was no more visible than in any large urban city.
5) Pickpocketing in Paris is Outrageous – We’ve been to a lot of big cities in many parts of the world. We live in a very big city. I have never seen anything like I saw in Paris. We were tried at least three times. The scams are everywhere, and nobody’s even trying to hide them. There’s no police presence at any of the major tourist attractions that draw most of the pickpocketing action. That’s something that’s going to have to get under control, because the crowds are going to be bigger than ever, which means more opportunities. Honestly, this is something Paris should be dealing with just for the global reputation of its city.
6) The people watching is going to be so good – We were there in winter, and even when it was 42 degrees F outside, the sidewalk cafes were still full of people watching the city go by. During the Olympics, that’s going to be amplified by a dozen. Forget about reserving tickets to the biggest events – just ‘buy’ a table for a few days at a cafe, and you’ll have the best show in town.
7) The best parts of the city are not at its center –
The best parts of the city are not in its center. The good news for swim fans is that you can get to La Defense just as easy by going west to places like St. Germain as you can by going east and staying in the city center. If you can, I would do that. With rare exception, the best things we ate were not in the touristy areas, but they were further away. Paris’ city center is very good at doing French food, for example, but if you want to experience the city’s incredible diversity through your tastebuds, your best results will be away from the tourist locations. Take the time to get out to some of the more far-flung venues, and even beyond, to see more of what Paris has to offer.
8) Pro Tip – If you’re going to try and squeeze in an art museum around the Games (and I don’t have a clue how they’re even going to manage it), skip the Louvre and go to the Pompidou. Besides being less crowded (though no less spectacular), the latter, dedicated to contemporary art, will close for five years starting in 2025 for a massive renovation. You can go back to the Louvre and see Mona Lisa another time, but Pompidou is going to be in hibernation for almost half a decade.
Next up, I’ve gotta convince my partners that I need to finish checking out the rest of the Olympic sites. Tahiti and Marseille are going to look real Nice in February.
The Paris 2024 Olympic Games start on July 26, 2024.