River Seine Swimming Makes A Comeback


Over one hundred years ago, the Paris Olympic Games of 1900 held its rowing, water polo and swimming events in its iconic river Seine, and in just over 60 days, when the Olympics of 2024 get under way, there are plans to swim there again.

There’s just one problem: Swimming has been banned in the river Seine since 1923 due to water quality issues, and the city of Paris has been racing to fix it; there is no plan B for the Olympic open-water swimming events.

Swimming in the Seine started in the mid-17th century along the Quai Sully and it was usually done nude, although by the 18th century, clothes were legally required. In 1801, authorities built the Deligny pool on around twenty barges at the side of the river, fed by water from the Seine, and by the end of the 19th century, there were 20 similar pools along the river. By the 20th century though, people had gravitated to land-based and indoor pools and the Deligny pool eventually sank in 1993.

It was the Mayor of Paris in 1988, Jacques Chirac, who promised that the Seine would be clean enough for people to swim in it by 1994—in reality, it has taken a little longer, even though there has been progress—at that time, there were three species of fish in the river and now there are believed to be around thirty.

There are complications, though; the river is a major urban waterway, and a recent report showed very high levels of bacteria where the triathlon and swimming will take place. The problem is that when there is a lot of rainwater, untreated water ends up overflowing into the Seine.

Just in time, on May 2, the city of Paris unveiled its master plan for improving water quality: an immense container that can hold 50,000 cubic meters of wastewater and rainwater, three years in the digging. That’s the equivalent of 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This impressive system of tunnels and vats is situated behind Paris’ train station, Gare d’Austerlitz, between the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital and the metro line 5, and will prevent untreated water from entering the Seine and its tributary, the Marne. The city has also linked permanent houseboats up to the main sewage system to further reduce the amount of untreated water finding its way into the river.

Organisers were keen to point out that samples for the report were taken during winter months, when there is less sunlight and stronger currents (neither of which allow the bacteria to be killed off as quickly by the sun’s UV rays) and before the new giant water tank overflow system was open. It’s expected that the city will begin to take samples along the river starting June 1.

One of the reasons why Paris won its bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games is because of its focus on sustainability and using existing infrastructure to host events—the new Olympic Village is a good example of how the city plans to regenerate and leave a legacy that well outlasts the departure of tourists in August.

The rejuvenation of Paris’ iconic river artery is another example of how the city will benefit after the Paralympics finish. By 2025, the public will be allowed to swim in the Seine at three locations: Bras Marie, Grenelle and Bercy (in the 4th, 15th and 12th arrondissements respectively).


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