'All the current tensions will be projected on the Olympics'

How the Israel-Hamas conflict could disrupt the Paris Olympic Games

Months before the sporting event of the year, France struggles with mind-boggling security logistics amid fears that violence could spill over

Paris City Hall is adorned with decorations auguring the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. (Romain Chauvet)
Paris City Hall is adorned with decorations auguring the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. (Romain Chauvet)

PARIS — More than 15 million visitors are expected this summer in the French capital for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s expected to be the sporting event of the year — but with conflicts raging around the world, the issue of security will be crucial in a country with its own history of devastating terror attacks.

“We have not had so many geopolitical questions in the Games since the Cold War. This time around, security might be the biggest issue,” said Jean-Baptiste Guégan, a specialist in sports geopolitics. “All current tensions, such as the [ongoing] Israeli-Hamas conflict, will be projected onto the Olympics. Thinking that sport is apolitical is a myth.”

Political motivations were in the spotlight on Wednesday when International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach confirmed Israel faces no threat to its Olympic status ahead of the Paris Games despite the conflict in Gaza. Some of the scattered calls Israel has faced for sporting sanctions since October have come from Russia, which is isolated in world sports because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Asked Wednesday about Israel teams and athletes not taking part in Paris, the International Olympic Committee president said: “No, there is no question about this.”

Israel is already taking into account the many contingencies that may unfold at the Games: How might an Israeli athlete react to public pro-Palestinian displays? What if they faced a Palestinian athlete or team — or one from Indonesia, which tried to ban Israel from participating in the 2023 FIFA Men’s Under-20 World Cup? Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make the trip to Paris? What if an Olympian refuses to compete against an Israeli? What if the Israeli flag is burned?

One thing is certain — the 10,500 competing athletes will have to put international tensions aside and cohabit together in the Olympic Village. But, said Guégan, it might not be that simple.

“Athletes will be taken hostage by a geopolitical reality that goes beyond them… As soon as we put players face to face there may be positions taken, as we recently saw in Turkey,” he said, referring to Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel, who was arrested in Turkey for marking 100 days since the hostages were abducted by Hamas.

And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always reverberated in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities.

Posters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas on a bridge over the Seine in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. (Romain Chauvet)

“My greatest fear, and I am not the only one to share it, is that we have a rekindling of the memory of Munich and the desire of certain actors to make Paris a new Munich,” Guégan said.

During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, eight members of the Palestinian militant organization Black September infiltrated the Olympic village and killed 11 Israelis.

Sports geopolitics specialist Jean-Baptiste Guégan. (Courtesy)

The Paris 2024 organizing committee has already made assurances that “unprecedented” means will be implemented to secure the Games, including the deployment of 30,000 police and gendarmes who will be reinforced by roughly 20,000 soldiers. In addition, between 17,000 and 22,000 private security agents are expected for the Olympic sites and fan zones. Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez also announced that it would be necessary to present a QR code to circulate freely, whether on foot or in a motorized vehicle, in certain areas where Olympic events will take place.

“The threat is complex. We can imagine isolated actors who would attack the crowd and in particular identify Israeli supporters or even Israeli representatives on French soil,” said Guégan.

Another threat that should not be neglected, added Guégan, is disinformation such as rumors and online efforts to destabilize athletes before competitions, or even entire campaigns dedicated to sowing discord among athletes and attendees.

High risk, high stress

One of the first challenges will be the opening ceremony on July 16, held outdoors on the Seine, near the Eiffel Tower, with athletic delegations parading in front of millions of spectators on the river quays and behind the screen. It will be the first time an Olympic opening ceremony will be held outside an Olympic stadium, and security has been debated for months — particularly since the terrorist attack near the Eiffel Tower in December that left one dead and two injured.

President of the Israeli Olympic Committee Yael Arad assured the AFP in an interview that Israel would be present at the opening ceremony. Arad said she was confident that the French authorities would be able to ensure the Israeli delegation’s security.

Workers set up a giant poster announcing the Olympic Games on the facade of the Solidarity and Health Ministry in Paris, on February 27, 2024. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

“We’re working hard to make sure our athletes are safe for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024. Our collaboration with the Organizing Committee of Paris 2024 has been highly productive… we have complete trust in their capabilities,” said the Israeli Olympic Committee by email.

French police will be the first line of defense when it comes to security on the ground, putting pressure on overwhelmed police officers.

“It’s going to be a historic moment. The eyes of the whole world will be on France, but everything will rely on the work of the police. We already have this pressure on us. If something happens we will be the laughingstock of the world,” said national secretary of the Unite-SGP French police union Jean Christophe Couvy.

Police officers also complain of being understaffed, overworked and underpaid in relation to the effort they put into the job. There will be no vacation for police officers during the Olympic Games.

French police have been operating at full throttle over the last year — particularly since the October 7 Hamas onslaught, which led to an explosion of antisemitic incidents in France.

From right to left: France’s Minister for Sports and Olympics Amelie Oudea-Castera, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, President of the Paris Organizing Committee of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Tony Estanguet, speak with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and General Manager of Solideo Nicolas Ferrand (L) during the inauguration of the Paris 2024 Olympic village in Saint-Denis, northern Paris, on February 29, 2024. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

On October 7, thousands of Hamas-led terrorists breached the border with Israel and brutally murdered 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped 253 more to the Gaza Strip. Israel subsequently launched an ongoing operation to remove Hamas from power and return the hostages, which has come at great cost to Palestinian life in Gaza. Antisemitism has skyrocketed around the globe following the massacre.

In a sign that security is not being taken lightly, French President Emmanuel Macron was careful not to move Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and the minister responsible for the Olympics, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, during a major reshuffle in January.

But for the police, many questions remain.

“Today we are unable to comfort our colleagues or explain to them how they will work during the Games,” said Couvy. “There is a real lack of anticipation from our ministry, it’s crazy. We’ve known for years that there will be these games.”

AP contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: