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Why Tahiti will host part of the Paris Olympic Games and the controversy that comes with it

The Olympic Games will be chock full of iconic images of Parisian landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Pont Alexandre III bridge and Hôtel des Invalides are all set to play a starring role.

But one of the most stunning backdrops for the quadrennial competition won’t be in Paris – or France for that matter. It won’t even be in the same hemisphere.

The world-famous waves off Teahupo’o in Tahiti are set to be one of the most scenic and unique locations of the upcoming games, beginning when the island hosts the surfing competition that kicks off on July 27.

The selection of Tahiti fulfills one of the pledges from Paris organizers, who promised to spread the Olympics throughout French territory. Tahiti became a French colony in 1880 and is now classified as an autonomous overseas country of the French Republic.

While other cities across France are hosting soccer, basketball and other high-profile competitions, the choice to put the surfing competition in the largest island in French Polynesia has made for one of the most unique and controversial venues in this edition of the Olympics.

But it’s one that’s well-known in the surfing community, as the swells off of the southwestern coast of Tahiti have long been a part of the stops on the competition circuit.

Located roughly 9,700 miles and a 21-hour flight away from Paris, Teahupo’o will make for one of the far-flung host cities for an Olympic event in history.

“This is a magical place, and the waves in Teahupo’o are breathtaking,” said Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet after a visit to the event site in 2022. “Our vision has always been to provide the most spectacular conditions for the surfers and the sport. I have no doubt that Tahiti will deliver on that vision.”

Teahupo’o was selected third on CNN’s list of top 50 places to surf in the world in 2013, described as a short and intense ride that creates amazing waves for surfing. The name means “Wall of Heads” and can be dangerous.

Because the location of the Games’ competition has long been on the worldwide surfing circuit, it’s long had a wooden tower that is built for competitions in the lagoon off the coast.

It’s this judging tower – and the determination that it wasn’t going to be compliant with the safety expectations of Olympic competition, notably refereeing and broadcast coverage – that has set off a controversy in Tahiti and surfing circles.

Olympic organizers have instead built an aluminum tower in the lagoon that has become a source of scrutiny throughout the build-up to the Olympics.

After initially announcing plans to build a 14-ton, 150-square-meter tower with room for 40 people, drinking water and wastewater connections, the Paris 2024 team announced last year that it would be scaling back the project following backlash.

“As the current judges’ tower does not meet current safety standards, it will no longer be used and must be replaced if Teahupo’o is to continue to organise surfing events, whether for the Olympic Games or any other competition,” organizers said in a November news release.

“The second issue is that the tower must be able to guarantee good conditions for the refereeing of the competition, in particular by offering the judges the necessary visibility over the entire wave.”

The plans for the new aluminum tower were criticized for potentially causing damage to the delicate coral reef off Teahupo’o at a time when global warming is already harming coral reefs around the world.

Video posted last year by Save Teahupo’o Reef showed a barge – being used to build the tower – stuck on the reef, as well as evidence of broken coral

The tower had been ripped by some critics as a symbol of colonialism and accused the organizers of the event of not living up to their claims that the competition would be sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Alexandra Dempsey, coral reef ecologist and CEO of Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, said that the coral formation that makes Tahiti such an ideal place for professional surfing could be damaged by the tower.

“The local communities there are incredibly passionate and culturally tied to the ocean, and particularly the reef systems and the reef systems there that caused the wave action in that area. And the perfect wave … is … a natural effect of how the reef is and has been naturally formed for millions of years,” she told CNN.

“You’re really not only damaging the ecology of the reef, but also the structure that’s been there, that’s been able to create the wonderful waves that that site was chosen for. And we’re not really sure what the outcomes or the fallout would be of damaging the reef system there,” she added.

There are over 1,000 species of fish and 150 species of coral in French Polynesia, according to Tahiti’s tourism board. Threatened by the effects of climate change and mass tourism, the corals are a highly protected species.

The Paris 2024 committee said in a November news release that other options had been considered – such as reinforcing the foundations of the current tower, certifying the existing tower and existing foundation as safe, building a new wooden tower and having the judges judge the competition either from the shore or from boat.

All of those options were ruled out and the decision was made to construct a slimmed-down version of the new aluminum tower.

“The protection of the natural environment at Teahupo’o has always been a priority in the conception of all envisaged solutions for the site,” the news release stated.

“All development plans at Teahupo’o have been studied to minimise impact on the environment. This has been the aim of all the studies carried out with a view of organising the Games, and in particular the environmental support mission during the design and construction phase of the new tower.”

“The new tower, less imposing and reduced in size and weight, installed on new permanent foundations, is the solution that will ensure the longevity of the tower and guarantee that future sporting events can be held at Teahupo’o,” organizers added.

“This tower and the new foundations will be able to receive 10-year certification, which is essential for insurance purposes.”

The decision met with outrage from activists and condemnation from the International Surfing Association, the sport’s world governing body.

The new nine-ton, 50-square-meter, three-story tower is now sitting in the waters off Teahupo’o and – as Surfer Magazine reported in April – is in an area that does not directly affect much of the coral, though the long-term effects have yet to be seen.

“The area where the tower is built has very little coral. It’s a flat shelf with small spread out corals heads and a few bigger rocks covered with coral,” wrote Tim McKenna, a Tahiti-based photographer, in an Instagram post that showed photos of how the new tower looks after its construction.

“Over the years corals (have) even covered the previous concrete tower base structure.”

He added: “The new tower was never only for the Olympic Games. It’s a collapsable tower that will be assembled every year for the duration of the event.

“The aluminum structure designed and built exclusively in Tahiti can finally be certified for insurance and safety reasons. It’s an investment the Tahitian government has made for the … next 20 years of surfing events at Teahupo’o.”

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