Olympics boss vows Paris Games will be safe, says no resignations planned in corruption probe

In an AP interview, Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet also addressed other issues crucial to the success of the first Olympics to host spectators again after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paris 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee President Tony Estanguet looks around during an interview with the AP in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Photo | AP)
Paris 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee President Tony Estanguet looks around during an interview with the AP in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Photo | AP)

SAINT-DENIS: What was shaping up as a regular workday turned out to be anything but for the organizers of France's first summer Olympic Games in a century.

French anti-corruption police raided their bustling Olympic headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, arriving unannounced and accompanied by a magistrate from a French financial crimes prosecution unit that has made a habit of going after sports' rogues.

This time, they were zeroing in on twenty or so of the many hundreds of business contracts that Olympic organizers have signed as they race to prepare the French capital for 10,500 athletes and millions of spectators next year.

The investigators were hunting for documents and information as they dig into suspicions of favouritism, conflicts of interest, and misuse of some of the billions of euros (dollars) being sunk into the Paris Games that open July 26, 2024.

Tony Estanguet, a former Olympic canoeing star with gold medals from 2000, 2004 and 2012 Games, was at work in the Olympic HQ when police came knocking last week. The trim 45-year-old is the face and chief organizer of the Paris Games, presiding over a rapidly growing workforce whose preparations were progressing largely smoothly before investigators arrived with a judge's warrant.

"It's the first time this has happened to us, so we were surprised," Estanguet says. "We said, 'Yes, of course, take all the information you need.'"

"I am cooperating. There will surely be other stages. We'll surely have to reply to more questions. There will be more checks right up to the end, perhaps even after the Games," he acknowledges.

"So I am ready for that and I know that it is part of this kind of adventure. We'll be inspected intensely, criticized hugely."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the Paris 2024 president vigorously defended colleagues whose homes also were searched.

The two senior organizing committee executives for now face no allegations and are being looked at because they were involved in business decisions, Estanguet says. "There's no question of envisaging" their resignation "for the moment," he adds.

Estanguet insists that the two financial probes of Paris Games contract awards bear no comparison with corruption and ethics scandals that have for decades dogged the Olympic movement and its flagship money-spinning event, including the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Rio de Janeiro's bribery-plagued Games of 2016.

"It's unfair to say that we're like the others," he says. "Unfortunately, things went off course in the past and I think we're all being lumped together a bit, although I can tell you that we're being very careful and everyone here has to be very careful because there is no room for error."

In the hour-long AP interview, Estanguet also addressed other issues crucial to the success of the first Olympics to host spectators again after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Security preparations for the groundbreaking opening ceremony on July 26 will turn Paris into "the safest place in the world," he boldly predicts.

Instead of a traditional stadium ceremony, Paris intends to showcase its iconic monuments with a waterborne extravaganza on a 6-kilometre (3 1/2-mile) stretch of the cleaned-up River Seine. Hundreds of thousands of spectators will mostly watch for free in the heart of the French capital, where Islamic extremists attacked twice in 2015, killing 147 people, including outside the national stadium.

"If you want to be safe, come to Paris for the opening ceremony," Estanguet says.

With just a year to go, Paris still has a lot of unfinished work, and that's fine, he says. "There are lots of things that aren't ready. But that's normal. I used to be a top-level athlete. It's never good to be ready a year beforehand ... You have to be ready on gameday and arrive with the feeling that you're not quite ready. That way you fight, cling on, give everything to really be at your best," he says.

The probes led by France's financial prosecution service — the first opened in 2017, the second in 2022 — threaten to hang over organizers for the duration of the July-August Olympics and the Paralympic Games that follow into September.

Investigators expect to spend months sifting through documents recovered in their searches of the Paris 2024 offices, the homes of Etienne Thobois, its director general, and Edouard Donnelly, executive director of operations. They also searched the HQ of the company delivering Olympic infrastructure, Solideo, and homes of some of its staff, according to a judicial official with knowledge of the investigations who wasn't authorized to discuss them publicly.

The official said the Paris court that would hear any case, if the prosecutors' probes get that far, also has no room on its calendar to hold a trial before September 2024.

Investigators do not suspect that bribes were paid or received, drawing a sharp distinction with the corruption probes that ensnared Tokyo and Rio, the official said. Instead, two police units that fight financial criminality are investigating about 20 Olympic-related contracts — some worth less than 1 million euros — for suspected violations of French laws governing conflicts of interest, contract dealings and use of public funds, the official said.

Estanguet acknowledges that with an event so big and costly, it's a constant battle to keep tabs on everyone working to make it happen.

He detailed multiple layers of internal and external checks, including continuous scrutiny by state auditors, that he and other Olympic organizers work under in dealing with service providers and in handling their budget of 4.38 billion euros (US$4.8 billion) — one of the largest chunks of the overall Paris Games spending approaching 9 billion euros. Paris 2024 says it has signed contracts with more than 1,500 companies so far.

No Paris 2024 employee awards contracts alone, "The decision is always collective," Estanguet says.

"From the outset, we've been very careful because we know we're watched and we know we're accountable. And vis-à-vis the French, we have this duty to be exemplary. Me, I have my image," says the former athlete who at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was chosen to carry France's tricolour flag.

"I believe in sport. It changed my life. I want to show that sport will change this country and that sport will be a success. And I don't want this adventure to be remembered as having been badly managed."

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