Tokyo 10K Olympic Champion Ana Marcela Cunha Calls For a “Plan B” For Seine Open Water Events

The clocks are ticking down to the start of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France. And as the Games approach, there is still concern about whether the Seine will be safe for the Olympic and Paralympic open water and triathalon swimmers to race in.

Last month, the reigning Olympic 10K open water champion, Ana Marcela Cunha, became the lastest to raise concerns.

Organizers for the Paris Games have pumped over a billion euros (approximately 1.5 billion USD) into their effort to clean up the iconic river. But last summer’s swimming test events were cancelled due to poor water quality, which officials later attributed to a faulty sewer valve upstream. Despite this setback, organizers have resisted publicly naming an alternative site for the open water events if the Seine’s water quality in August 2024 does not meet acceptable levels.

In an interview with AFP in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Cunha called for a ‘Plan B’ if this exact situation happens.

“If it is not possible to compete there, there has to be a Plan B,” Cunha said. “The organisation has to accept that perhaps, unfortunately, it may not be able to hold the event where it wants to and it has to be concerned about the health of the athletes, which is the most important thing,” she further explained.

The Seine is at the heart of organizers’ plans for the Games. It cuts right through Paris and is an effective way tool to use to showcase some of the city’s most beautiful sights. They plan to hold the opening ceremonies on the water. The course for the open water events features a direct view of the Eiffel Tower.

Cunha recognized what the organizers aim to achieve with the course. But she rejected the idea that a Plan B would erase the city’s history. “The history of Paris or the history of the Seine will not going to be erased (by not holding the race there). We know the value of the Alexandre III bridge, the Eiffel Tower,” she said before re-emphasizing the importance of athlete’s health and safety.

Cunha’s call comes on the heels of President Emmanuel Macron adding his promise to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo‘s to swim in the Seine. Both Macron and Hidalgo’s promises echo Jacques Chirac. In 1990, Chirac vowed to swim in the river during during his tenure as mayor of Paris, which he never fulfilled. While Hidalgo declared she’d dive in before the Games, Macron hedged: “I’m not going to give you the date – there’s a risk you’ll be there.”

The organizers’ billion dollar plan to clean up the Seine has two main priorities: cleaning up the pollution that already exists in the river and preventing more from being added. This second priority is especially important because Paris’ sewer system funnels both rainwater and wastewater. When storms overwhelm the system—which happens about 12 times a year according to Samuel Colin-Canivez, the city’s lead engineer for the clean up’s sewage projects—everything gets released into the Seine.

The storage tank Colin-Canive and his team are constructing underground near the Austerlitz train station is organizers’ main way of combating this issue. The completed basin and connected 700-meter tunnel will hold 13.2 million gallons of water.

But since April 2023, when organizers invited journalists from media outlets like TIME and The New York Times to view their progress, they were aware that rain could derail all their plans. If it rains the entire week before the Games, deputy mayor Pierre Raabadan told The New York Times “we know the quality of the water—even with all the work we’ve done—probably won’t be excellent.” With no alternative site announced, that leaves postponing the races and re-testing the water quality as the primary option.

Cunha is aware of this too. “Nothing can be done on the day of the event,” she said. “But afterwards, once you’re out of the water, you can fall ill a fortnight later,” pointing out that it may take several weeks to know whether swimming in the Seine had any negative effects on the athletes.

A three-time Olympian, Cunha is no stranger to pollution affecting Olympic open water events. Cunha swam at both the Rio and Tokyo Games; in Rio, waterborne viruses were a major concern. In Tokyo, water quality issues were a major storyline in the run up to the Games.

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1 month ago

France has one of the most beautiful lake in the world : The Annecy lake which is 1000x better than the Seine.

Last edited 1 month ago by MA 200 IM GOLD IN PARIS
1 month ago

This is always in issue with all the major open water competitions. How can states ive lived in have large and well operated races with no issues multiple times a year but this large organizations with plenty of money cant get their stuff together?

1 month ago

I’m sure Budapest will have the Danube ready just in case…

1 month ago

So the whole event is dependant on the weather- a huge rain event and its cancelled…..that seems a little dumb.

Stewart Fenwick
1 month ago

I already wrote in Swimswam a year ago that Paris organizers MUST have plan B for open water swimming.

But knowing they’re French, they’re probably too stubborn.

Dom from France
Reply to  Stewart Fenwick
1 month ago

Do not generalize, the responsibility lies with the municipality of Paris and the organizing committee. In France too there are requests for a plan B.

Reply to  Stewart Fenwick
1 month ago

France has some pretty incredible open water swimmers with serious shots for gold at home. FFN is taking this seriously.

1 month ago

If only there was a palace nearby with a “Grand Canal” in the back yard that stretches for 5KM through a beautiful garden…

Reply to  SwammaJammaDingDong
1 month ago

Is this body of water deep enough though?

I do know in 2022 there was a FINA Openwater swim in a french canal that seemed to go ok, the Aussie contingent didn’t cop any post race illnesses that I recall. So there is a body of water capable of hosting the swim within Paris but not necessarily the best spectator or TV spectacle that could possibly be with the proposed Sienna River site for the Olympics now.

Undoubtedly there has to be a backup race venue plan in my opinion.

Reply to  SHRKB8
1 month ago

The Bassin de la Villette and Canal Saint Martin are regularly used for swimming and can be ready at short notice. I suspect there is a back up plan, just not a publicised one.

Reply to  Atohitotsu
1 month ago

I hope you are correct and is my suspicion as well.

1 month ago

10K Poop Swim

Reply to  Hank
1 month ago

Not much different to Rio from what I am told.

1 month ago

It’s irresponsible, thoughtless, inconsiderate, dangerous and unacceptable to not have a back up venue for the Open Water races.

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Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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