Olympic torch lit in Greece as France faces multiple issues with 100 days until games

Paris 2024 torch has begun an 11-day relay on Greek soil that will see 600 torchbearers carry it 5,000km

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The torch was lit in Olympia, Greece on Tuesday in a ritual inspired by antiquity and marked by messages of hope before beginning its relay to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“The Olympic flame that we are lighting today symbolises this hope for a better future,” said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

Cloudy weather saw Greek actresses in the role of ancient priestesses use a flame lit in a rehearsal Monday in the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera, near the stadium where the Olympics were born in 776BC.

Carrying the flame in a pot, Greek actress Mary Mina lit the torch for the first bearer, 2020 Olympic rowing champion Stefanos Ntouskos.

Retired swimmer Laure Manaudou, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, followed as France's first torchbearer in Olympia.

The torch harks back to the ancient Olympics when a sacred flame burnt throughout the Games. The tradition was revived in 1936 for the Berlin Olympics.

During the 11-day relay on Greek soil, some 600 torchbearers will carry the flame over a distance of 5,000km through 41 municipalities.

“In ancient times, the Olympic Games brought together the Greek city states, even – and in particular – during times of war and conflict,” Mr Bach said.

“Today, the Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition,” he said.

“Then as now, the Olympic athletes are sending this powerful message: Yes, it is possible to compete fiercely against each other and at the same time live peacefully together under one roof.”

Officials on Tuesday stressed that the Paris Games will set new milestones, following the legacy of the other two prior Olympics held in the French capital.

“The Olympic flame will shine over the first Olympic Games inspired by our Olympic Agenda reforms from start to finish,” Mr Bach said.

“These Olympic Games will be younger, more inclusive, more urban, more sustainable. These will be the very first Olympic Games with full gender parity, because the IOC allocated exactly 50 per cent of the places to female and male athletes,” he said.

Paris Olympics chief organiser Tony Estanguet noted that women took part for the first time in the Paris 1900 Games, while the first Olympic Village was created for the 1924 Paris Games.

For the first time since the Coronavirus pandemic imposed toned-down events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games, the ceremony was back with full regalia and scores of spectators.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo were present at the ceremony.

American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato delivered the Olympic anthem.

The Olympic flame will be handed over to Paris 2024 organisers in a ceremony at the all-marble Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic Games of 1896, on April 26.

Nana Mouskouri, the 89-year-old Greek singer with a worldwide following, has been invited to perform at the ceremony.

On April 27, the flame will begin its journey to France on board the 19th-century three-masted barque Belem, which was launched just weeks after the 1896 Athens Games.

A French historical monument, the Belem carried out trade journeys to Brazil, Guyana and the Caribbean for nearly two decades.

France's last surviving three-mast steel-hulled boat, it is expected to arrive in Marseille on May 8.

Ten thousand torchbearers will then carry the flame across 64 French territories.

It will travel through 400 towns and dozens of tourist attractions during its 12,000km journey through mainland France and overseas French territories in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific.

On July 26 it will form the centrepiece of the Paris Olympics opening ceremony.

Security concerns could see opening ceremony moved from River Seine

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that in the event of a security threat, the opening ceremony for the Paris Olympics could move from the River Seine to the national stadium for the first time.

Instead of teams sailing down the Seine on barges, the ceremony could be “limited to the Trocadero” building across the river from the Eiffel Tower or “even moved to the Stade de France”, Mr Macron said.

The Paris organisers have devised a ceremony that is unprecedented in Olympic history as it breaks from the tradition of the games opening in the main stadium.

The plans would see as many as 10,000 athletes sailing along a six kilometre stretch of the Seine in around 160 barges, before gathering at the Trocadero for a ceremony.

But with war raging in Ukraine and in Gaza, the ceremony also leaves teams potentially vulnerable to attack – French authorities have, for example, mentioned the possibility of an attack launched by drones.

So far, organisers have denied the ceremony on July 26 could be moved to a different venue if authorities believe there is a possibility it will be attacked.

“This opening ceremony … is a world first. We can do it and we are going to do it,” Mr Macron said in an interview with BFMTV and RMC.

“We have put in place a security cordon which is going to be very big, where we are going to check all the people coming in and going out,” Mr Macron said.

But, he added, “there are Plan Bs and Plan Cs, we are preparing them in parallel … We will analyse this in real time”.

The backup plans include moving the ceremony to the Stade de France to the north of Paris, the main stadium for the Olympics where the rugby sevens and athletics will be held.

Moving the ceremony from the Seine would be a huge undertaking and would deprive the Paris Olympics of their defining image.

If the ceremony is moved to the Stade de France, it would be purely ceremonial without an artistic show, according to sources with knowledge of the arrangements.

Paris prepares for Olympic Games – in pictures

More than 300,000 spectators are expected to be present for the ceremony, with another 200,000 watching from buildings along the Seine.

So far, all countries have said they plan to take part in the open-air river parade, including the most risk-averse such as the US and Israel.

Mr Macron also said he would do “everything possible” to have an Olympic truce during the games.

The truce is a historic tradition that peace reigns during the Olympics.

“We want to work towards an Olympic truce and I think it is an occasion for me to engage with a lot of our partners,” he said.

Large areas of central Paris to be closed off week before Olympics

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said last week that large areas of central Paris will be out of bounds for most people a week ahead of the Olympics, with traffic allowed to cross the River Seine at only four locations.

In the week leading up to the opening ceremony, police will put in place a vast antiterror zone stretching all along the River Seine.

About 20,000 homes lie inside the zone and anyone wanting to enter it – including workers or tourists with a hotel or apartment reservation – will need to have registered beforehand on a government website to obtain a QR code.

The apartments overlooking the river have been highlighted as a major security risk, with France on its highest possible terror warning level following an attack claimed by ISIS in Moscow last month.

The proposed solution is the online registration system that will require people wanting to access the antiterror zone around the river to have entered their personal details into a government-run website.

Those approved for access – residents, tourists with bookings, workers such as waiters, locksmiths or nurses – will then receive a QR code that must be presented to police in order to access the zone.

“We will prevent anyone who is suspected of being radicalised for example of entering in this perimeter,” Mr Darmanin added.

The registration website will be live from May 10, Mr Darmanin said.

French security stop 800 'without good intentions' from attending games

About 800 people who “did not have good intentions” have been excluded from the Paris Olympics over security fears, Mr Darmanin said in March.

The list includes 15 deemed to represent the most serious threat to national security.

“The French people must know that we absolutely check everyone who approaches the Olympic Games – so there are the volunteers, torch bearers, the people who will welcome you,” Mr Darmanin told broadcaster LCI.

“There are a million checks to be done; we have already carried out 180,000 checks. We have excluded 800 people including 15 on 'Fiches S' (the dossier of the most serious threats).”

“That means that there are people who wanted to register to carry the flame, to be volunteers at the Olympic Games and who clearly did not have good intentions.”

Mr Darmanin specified that among those excluded were “radical Islamists” and “radical ecology people who want to protest”.

Paris Olympics venues – in pictures

French security forces are screening up to a million people before the Olympics, including athletes and people living close to key infrastructure, according to the interior ministry.

Ahead of the start on July 26, all 10,500 athletes selected for the Olympics and 4,400 for the Paralympics will be subjected to background checks, as will their coaches and medical staff, in addition to 26,000 accredited journalists.

Police remove migrants from capital ahead of games

At the start of April, French police removed dozens of migrants, including families with young children, from the forecourt of Paris City Hall.

Police arrived at dawn to remove about 50 people, mostly women and children aged 3 months to 10 years, who were bundled up in pushchairs, under blankets or covered with plastic sheets to shield against the rain while sleeping in the plaza.

The migrants packed belongings and boarded a bus to temporary local government housing in the town of Besançon in eastern France.

Aid workers are concerned that the move is the beginning of a broader effort by Paris authorities to clear out migrants and others sleeping in the rough in the capital before the Olympics without providing longer-term housing options.

“They’re clearing the way for the Olympic Games,” Yann Manzi, a member of the migrant aid group Utopia 56, told the Associated Press.

“What is happening is nothing short of social cleansing of the city.”

Olympics organisers have said they are working with aid groups to find solutions for those in the streets, including the many people who come from around the world to Paris seeking refuge or employment.

Many of the families are from French-speaking African countries, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

They have been sleeping beneath the ornate facade of the Paris monument for days, weeks and some even for months.

Aid groups such as Utopia 56, have distributed food, blankets and diapers and helped some of them find temporary lodging for a night or two.

Fatoumata, a mother of two from Guinea, spent a whole month sleeping on the streets of Paris with her two children, aged 3 months and 3 years.

“It’s no way to live, it’s exhausting,” Fatoumata said, holding the baby and clutching the toddler to her. She boarded the bus in hope that life will be better outside the capital.

“They told us we are going to the provinces, which is better than sleeping outside with the children,” Fatoumata said. She spoke on condition her full name not be published because she doesn’t have residency papers.

Regional mayors express anger at migrant transfers from capital

Mayors in rural and small-town France are increasingly angry over the transfer of migrants from the capital to their communities.

Serge Grouard, the right-wing mayor of Orleans in central France, complained Monday about the arrival of up to 500 homeless migrants in his town of 100,000 people without his prior knowledge.

“It has been proved that every three weeks, a coach arrives in Orleans from Paris, with between 35-50 people on board,” he told reporters, adding that there were rumours it was to “clean the deck” in the capital ahead of the Olympics in July and August.

Each new arrival is offered three weeks in a hotel at the state's expense, but is thereafter left to fend for themselves, Mr Grouard explained.

Paris has long been a magnet for refugees and migrants, mostly from Africa, South Asia or the Middle East, with demand for short-term emergency accommodation far exceeding supply.

Preparations and protests in Paris – in pictures

The arrivals in Orleans were “not linked to the organisation of the Paris Olympics”, the state's regional security office said, adding that Orleans was one of 10 “temporary regional reception centres”.

“We haven't been consulted, either about the creation or about the people who will go there,” the deputy mayor of Strasbourg, Floriane Varieras, told AFP when asked about a regional facility near her city in eastern France.

“That's where I agree with the mayor of Orleans, the rather opaque side of what is happening,” she added.

In January, the major of Lavaur, a small town near Toulouse in south-west France, issued a public letter in which he denounced the policy of transferring migrants around the country as “irresponsible” and “dangerous”.

Bernard Carayon, a right-winger from the Republicans party, wrote that the policy was designed “to make Paris in all likelihood more 'presentable' and more controllable, six months before the Olympic Games”.

“It's unacceptable,” he added.

Mr Macron backed the idea of dispersing asylum seekers and refugees around the country during a speech in September 2022.

The centrist called the long-standing policy of concentrating migrants in low-income areas of major cities “absurd” and argued that refugees could help bring about a “demographic transition” in rural and small-town France.

Many areas outside of France's major cities are suffering from population decline, leading to school and shop closures as well as labour shortages.

But right-wing and far-right politicians have denounced the policy, accusing Mr Macron of introducing poverty, crime and Islam into traditional communities which are frequently wary of outsiders.

In February, an umbrella group of 80 French charities called the Revers de la medaille (The other side of the medal) denounced what it called the “social cleansing” of Paris ahead of the Olympics with efforts to remove migrants and the homeless.

The complaints echoed others heard in host cities of past Olympics.

Authorities in China cleared an unknown number of beggars, hawkers and the homeless from the streets before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with many shipped back to their home regions, reports said at the time.

Brazilian campaign groups also said Rio de Janeiro's homeless were being forced out of tourist areas in the middle of the night as the city hosted the games in 2016.

More than a million people filed requests for asylum in the European Union in 2023, the highest level in seven years, according to EU statistics.

France received the second-highest number of requests at 167,000.

Updated: May 02, 2024, 8:11 AM