Paris Olympic Committee: Local erasure in Teahupo’o

Paris Olympic Committee: Local erasure in Teahupo’o

The Paris 2024 Olympics, facing scrutiny from Parisians over metro price hikes and strict security measures, now confronts an environmental uproar in Teahupo'o, Tahiti, chosen as the Olympic surfing venue. The core of the contention is the proposed construction of a $5 million aluminum competition judging tower. Professional surfer Matahi Drollet leads local resistance, highlighting the structure's potential detriment to the nearby reef and marine life. This tower, significantly more imposing than the preexisting wooden facility, is perceived as an imminent hazard to the fragile coral ecosystem. This ecosystem not only underpins Tahitian marine biodiversity but also embodies a crucial element of local cultural heritage.

After significant opposition, the Paris 2024 Committee is now proposing to scale down the tower by 25%, from 14 tons to 9, and relocating coral through cuttings. Activists and locals remain sceptical. They suggest that the ecological ramifications of such a substantial structure are not offset by mere reduction in size or reef manipulation. Specifically, the anticipated long-term consequences of the tower include extensive marine life disruption, escalated sedimentation, and alterations to Teahupo’o’s iconic wave patterns. 

Further, the ‘relocation’ of parts of the reef is particularly contentious. Through cuttings, the committee has suggested that relocation is a legitimate way of reducing the ecological footprint of the project. However, Titouan Bernicot, the CEO of Coral Gardeners (an association restoring and conserving reefs in Moorea, French Polynesia), has stated that this process of cutting and replanting is more lengthy and challenging than the Committee has made it seem. Further, that removal will have damaging effects for years to come. People like French surf photographer Romauld Pliquet, a Tahitian resident, believe that there has been no environmental impact study done at all prior to deciding to use the area for the event. 

Life in Teahupo’o is deeply enmeshed with ecological well-being and residents believe that the Planning Committee is not considering the long term impact on the viability of life in the community. Beyond the tower itself, the introduction of barges, equipment, and the materials and chemicals used in it’s construction may introduce ciguatera, which is often the case with ocean construction, a highly destructive algae poisonous to fish.  “I want my kids to be able to catch their own fish for dinner like I’ve been doing my whole life. I want them to be able to get their lobsters on the reef at night - just the simple things”, Lorenzo Avvenenti, resident and vocal opponent, said to The Inertia

The Olympics, an emblem of global unity and athletic excellence, is accused of leveraging its reputable image to eclipse the substantial environmental and cultural damage inflicted on Teahupo’o. In this regard, the construction of the aluminium tower, alongside the relevant ecological and cultural damage, contrasts heavily with the Olympic’s professed values of sustainability and harmony principles. In this sense, by portraying the event as a paragon of sustainability and international cooperation, the Paris 2024 Committee may be attempting to mask their contribution to the destruction of a critical habitat and disregard for the Tahitian community's cultural and economic interests. This raises significant ethical questions about the true commitment of the Olympics and similar global events to the values they espouse.

Opposition has provided the relevant authorities with a list of demands in order to protect the long-term viability of their life. It includes keeping the existing wooden tower, using solar energy instead of deploying sea floor cables, installing dry toilets to avoid piping and plumbing that will also harm the reef, and reducing the number of people allowed on the tower by placing journalists on a raised platform on the shoreline. The Olympic Committee has refuted these demands, citing safety standards.

impACT recognises that there is clear asymmetry when it comes to the decision-making process. Hugely influential, long-term decisions, are driven by short-term global economic and political interest over local well-being, and signifies embedded colonialist attitudes where local demands are infantilised and degraded under a centralised authority. Of course, French Polynesia has a long history of subjugation through colonial policy. In order to avert similar situations in future global events, and if organisers are truly committed to their professed values, impACT calls for a holistic policy approach that will primarily include mandatory local community and stakeholder consultations. Decisions and opinions by local residents must be central to decision making and hold clear priority. Furthermore, organising committees should undergo cultural sensitivity training to respect local traditions and values (or simply be comprised of people indigenous to whichever area that the event is being held). Accordingly, stringent sustainable event guidelines focusing on minimising environmental footprints and leveraging existing infrastructure are imperative. Lastly, an international oversight committee is essential to monitor adherence to these policies, providing a safeguard against colonial tendencies in global event planning, thereby fostering a more balanced and respectful approach to hosting global events. 

Teahupo’o serves as a poignant reminder of embedded colonial dynamics, often present in global events like the Olympics. External priorities, regarded often presented as highly rational, frequently overshadow environmental, cultural, and local economic considerations despite publicly stating a commitment a commitment to these considerations. We suggest that the Olympic Committee take Teahupo’o seriously, rather than feigning environmental and cultural concern. 


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