BOBIGNY, France (Reuters) - The most deprived department in France is expected to be a big winner now Paris is in line to host the 2024 Olympics with thousands of homes and a new swimming center to be built in Seine-Saint-Denis for the games.
The poorest of France’s 101 mainland departments, Seine-Saint-Denis sprawls east and north from Paris, much of it a drab expanse of grey suburbs, abandoned factories and poverty.
Paris learned on Monday that it was a near certainty to be the IOC’s chosen host for the 2024 games when its only remaining rival, Los Angeles, agreed to wait another four years. Budapest, Boston, Hamburg and Rome had all pulled out of the race.
“La Joie est Libre! (Joy Ahead!),” said the front-page headline of L’Equipe sports newspaper, welcoming the news with a play on words. A series of Islamist militant attacks frightened away many visitors from the French capital and city officials hope winning the bid will boost tourism.
Organizers of the games say their aim to lift Seine-Saint-Denis’s fortunes helped their case with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“Bearing in mind the symbolic and real divides which there sometimes still are between Paris and its suburbs, this young, working class place, with young people of all colors and all origins allows us to say to the IOC that these games are a wonderful opportunity to show that Paris is bigger than Paris,” Stephane Troussel, president of Seine-Saint-Denis, told Reuters.
Tony Estanguet, co-chair of the Paris bid, said: “We looked at the success of the games in London and for sure, the fact that London succeeded in leaving a strong legacy, a physical legacy in the east of London, was very important for us.”
Not all locals are sure of the benefits however. Some have half an eye on Stratford, a swathe of east London that was redeveloped for the 2012 games, but where rising rents have pushed locals out of similarly created new housing there.
“When there is a lot of investment landlords will also take advantage by adding a bit, increasing the rents,” said Fode Abass Toure, a 45-year-old resident of Bobigny.
“And even the restaurants will try to increase prices of products because a lot of tourists will come,” he said.
Seine-Saint-Denis has a reputation as a Socialist bastion where the French Communist Party and hard-left have a strong presence. It was in the area where the deaths of two youths who were hiding from police in a power station set off 2005 riots.
Unemployment in and around its main towns of Saint-Denis and Bobigny is approaching double the national average at more than 18 percent. Three out of 10 of its 1.5-million-strong population are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, mostly from Africa, a similar proportion are classed as living in poverty.
The Paris games - which have a relatively modest budget by recent standards at around 7 billion euros ($8.27 billion), will leave behind two permanent new developments, both of them in Seine-Saint-Denis.
They are the Olympic Village itself, which will be converted after the games to provide more than 3,500 homes, and a swimming center to stand alongside the Stade de France stadium, built for the 1998 football World Cup, now to be reborn as the Olympic Stadium where track and field athletes will compete.
At a run-down local pool that will be transformed into a water polo venue, children splashed as they played during a visit by Reuters. “Sport brings people together,” said sports activity leader Jose Defaria, aged 22.
“Even if we don’t come from the same social background, I think we’re the same in sport, we are brought closer together and we make links and it’s good for everyone. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
Paris 2024 - enthusiastically backed by the country’s tennis-playing new President Emmanuel Macron - plans to make the most of the city’s existing sports facilities and take full advantage of its landmarks.
Boxers will compete alongside tennis players at the clay court French Open tennis venue, Roland Garros, on the city’s western fringe, while the nearby clubs Paris Saint Germain and Stade Francais will host respective sports of soccer and rugby.
Distance races on foot and bicycle will start and finish at the Eiffel Tower, in whose shadow the ever-popular beach volleyball competition will play out.
Fencing and taekwondo will be held under the majestic steel and glass of the Grand Palais near the Champs Elysees, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has bet her reputation on the Seine river being clean enough for open water swimming in time for the games.
Official confirmation due in September would mean one of the world’s most visited cities can mark the centenary of the 1924 Paris Olympics with a repeat showing. Amongst the stars of those games was U.S. swimming gold medalist Johnny Weismuller who later became known for his role in the Tarzan films.
Hoteliers are keen for a much-needed shot in the arm.
Although hotel occupancy rates are rising, up 7.2 percent at 76.9 percent in the first half of this year, they are short of the 80 percent rate hoteliers enjoyed in 2014 before Islamist militant attacks scared off tourists.
A successful Olympic legacy is far from assured for any city, with recent hosts enjoying contrasting fortunes.
The legacy of the Athens Games left derelict, run-down arenas and unused stadiums. Four years earlier, Sydney used the Games to develop an Olympic Park which is now a thriving commercial, residential and sporting suburb.
Four years after Athens, Beijing aimed to use the games to showcase itself as a progressive world power. London’s 2012 evoked a feelgood factor before domestic politics reversed that optimism. In 2016, while Rio’s games lacked a certain luster they underlined the South American nation’s ability to deliver in the face of economic and social adversity.
Writing by Andrew Callus, editing by Peter Millership