Paris 2024 Olympics environmental promises come unstuck on famous Tahiti reef

France’s commitment to making the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games the most environmentally friendly on record has hit a snag.

Local residents in the Tahitian village of Teahupo’o, where the Olympic surfing competition will take place, are asking why their environment is being compromised — potentially threatening their livelihoods, all for a three-day event.

Teahupo’o has been one of the most popular stops on the professional surfing tour for more than 20 years.

It’s no surprise the legendary — and dangerous — reef break was selected as surfing’s Olympic venue despite being fifteen and a half thousand kilometres away from the host city.

“The first thing I say is it’s not a battle against the Olympics,” Teahupo’o local and pro surfer Matahi Drollet said.

“It’s really pointing at this aluminium tower that they want to build on the reef.”

Australian Mick Fanning is one of countless surfers who’ve encountered the massive waves at the Tahiti Pro.(WSL: Kelly Cestari)

Paris 2024 organisers want to replace a temporary, wooden judging tower with a three storey, aluminium structure. It requires concrete blocks to be lowered onto the reef for its foundations, and the laying of pipelines for the tower’s air-conditioning and plumbing.

“The local population feel like they’ve been left out of any conversation about the Olympics, about all the big construction that’s going on inside our little town,” Drollet said.

Risk of introducing ‘nightmare’ disease 

Two children carry surfboards over their heads as they walk on the shore.

Teahupo’o is a small fishing village in Tahiti, with a population of around 1500 people.(Getty Images: Ryan Pierse)

Most of the 1500 locals are subsistence fishermen.  The health of the reef is central to their community as a food source and vital to their economy.

The locals are also worried about the arrival of the painful ciguatera, an illness that plays havoc with a person’s gastrointestinal and nervous systems after eating poisonous fish — which has happened elsewhere in Tahiti due to changes in algal blooms associated with construction around the fragile marine environment.

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“To access the place where they want to build that tower there’s about 500 meters of shallow water where the reef is super, super shallow,” Drollet explained.

“And to bring all the big machinery, all the excavators, and all the things they’re going to need to drill the reef, they have to pass over all these coral heads.

“What happens is that when you stress the coral, it ejects this algae that is poisonous.

“When the fish come in and eat this algae they become poisonous, they have what is called the ciguatera.

“Ciguatera is a disease that affects your nervous system … you cannot take a shower, you cannot walk on tiles because your nerves invert the hot and the cold.

“When you take a cold shower it feels like it’s burning your skin. There’s like needles falling on you. You cannot drink water because your throat…it’s a nightmare.”

Conflicting views over tower

A wooden judging tower in the water with Tahiti Pro signage.

A wooden judging tower is erected for the Tahiti Pro WSL event each year.(WSL via Getty Images: Kelly Cestari)

Former World Surf League (WSL) judge, Luke Reading, said although the wooden judges’ tower used currently is ‘basic’, judges don’t spend time thinking about what they haven’t got.

“I never even really thought about the tower to be honest,” he said.

“It’s such a beautiful place… and the locals don’t want that beauty ruined at all with something that is more permanent.

“We’ve really only got the necessities out there…[but] not once did I ever think, ‘oh, air-con would be nice up here.’

“I was more like, this is awesome, I love this place.”

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