Investment, Bidding & Hosting, Politics & Governance, Infrastructure, Multiple sports, Olympics, Paralympics, Europe

At Large | Why Paris offers a glimpse at a different kind of sporting city

Ahead of its big moment as host of the 2024 Olympic Games, the French capital is altering its approach to sustainability and urbanisation with tech-focused city planning.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | Why Paris offers a glimpse at a different kind of sporting city

Paris is a city that, in a way, seems somehow unchanging. And in another, more accurate way, it is a city changing all the time. 

It is also trying to change the perception of itself as a sporting hub ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics. Last week brought the debut of the government-backed Global Sports Week, a gathering of sport and sports business types with their peers from entertainment and social institutions, all underneath the Louvre, no less. The French capital aims to put itself at the heart of the world sports industry over the next five years but it is also furthering a very specific idea of what a sporting capital looks like.

The principles of this were found in the pitch for Paris 2024 – digitally engaged, inclusive and participative, woven sustainably through a cherished urban setting. All of that is warm and fuzzy and buzzword-adjacent but it also captures the issues facing places like this. Paris is vibrant and inspiring; it can also be busy and expensive. Its population density is among Europe's highest.    

The common understanding of a sports city, from an industry perspective at least, has a lot to do with the people who watch it. Big teams generate a local identity and an economic stimulus, top-tier events project a monetisable image far and wide, and large-scale infrastructure is thrown up to support it all.

None of that will go away – a lot of people reading this will hope not, in any case. But there is forever more to consider for officials in cities like Paris, and in turn for organisations throughout sport. 

Urbanisation is an inescapable 21st century megatrend, up there with climate change, technological development and the proliferation of technocratic jargon. It is only since 2008 that more people on the planet have lived in cities than in rural areas. According to a 2018 study by the UN, 55 per cent of the world’s population is now urban. By 2050, that figure will 68 per cent. 

While a handful of cities like Tokyo – currently the world’s biggest, with 37 million inhabitants – are getting smaller, most are going the other way. There are expected to be 43 global megacities – those with populations of over ten million – by 2030. 

Major brands already get the significance of this and are recalibrating their activities in kind. Nike has shaped marketing campaigns around big urban communities for a while now. Adidas has built its operations around six cities where, in its own words, it wants to ‘over-proportionally grow share of mind, share of market and share of trend’. 

Those cities are London, Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Paris – where it also pulls in business innovations through its own startup accelerator, Platform A. That is based at Station F, a repurposed railway depot that houses similar projects for major tech companies and the likes of luxury goods giant LVMH.

At the same time, without ruling out cyborg coppers or flying cars, most of the challenges of future city life have a more familiar flavour. Municipalities are worried about the need for drastic cuts in carbon emissions, about living standards and circulation in ever more crowded spaces, and about public health issues like isolation and alienation as well as physical fitness. 

The immediate future of Paris is complicated by March’s mayoral election – which itself is complicated by the arrival of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche on the city’s local ballots for the first time, and an independent challenge from a former Macron aide. Incumbent Socialist party mayor Anne Hidalgo, one of the faces of the 2024 Olympic bid, has unveiled a long-term vision for phasing out vehicles and phasing in a concept called ‘la ville du quart d’heure’ – or the 15-minute city.

The aim of this is to encourage more self-sufficient communities by clustering vital amenities, shops, cafés, sports facilties and schools within a 15-minute walk or cycle of every citizen. In theory, the result would be Paris as a collection of local neighbourhoods. Similar schemes have been explored in Copenhagen, Melbourne and Utrecht, and the concept is championed by the Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno.

The crossovers between sport and a city based on physical mobility, rather than private transport, are pretty clear, and there are logical extensions for existing digital communities on apps like Strava. There might even be routes into a different kind of economic participation. One startup active at Global Sports Week, Baba Au Run, has mustered groups of recreational runners to transport morning pastries, Deliveroo-style, and is investigating ways of getting surplus food to homeless people.

The harsh realities of urban development are also contributing to these phenomena. In many established cities the cost of land and planning restrictions can restrict the creation of new public spaces. Paris, with its tight and carefully protected historic centre, has its own headaches in that regard. Those local authorities whose budgets are stretched, or grassroots groups priced out of private facilities, must find more creative solutions.

One response has been to make use of so-called ‘meanwhile spaces’ – areas under development or awaiting clearance for a change of use. These are often found in interiors like shops and archways, well suited to Crossfit or other fitness-based activities but just as usable for esports or something like it. Events based on digitised products like Zwift, the online running and cycling training programme that lets users interact and race in a virtual world, would make a neat fit for these locations. 

But snug urban spaces are being adapted in other ways as well. In cities across the world, rooftops and cul-de-sacs have been reimagined as compact courts and pitches – a designer’s interpretation of how young players have always set up games where they find room. That environment lends itself neatly to non-traditional versions of traditional sports: 3x3 basketball, say, or small-sided street soccer. 

Those are activities that tap into a youthful culture of improvisation and digital sharing – one that is shaping a lot of what happens above it. These competitions, properly harnessed, can open up new talent pathways for established sports that would otherwise find some groups hard to reach. 

It is unsurprising, then, to see federations doing their best to channel all of that exuberance in the very best blazered way they can – through GAISF’s Urban Games or the incorporation of 3x3, skateboarding and breaking in the Olympic programme. Yet as easy as it is to dismiss those efforts as pandering, they are at least a response to something profound. For lots of young people, using city spaces in this way provides a sense of ownership at a time when a lot is drifting away from them, or being forcefully dragged.

That above all creates the sense that this really could be something bigger, a proper new phase in sport’s development as much as a modish smattering of stuff. Where agrarian life and the comforts of the leisured classes brought many modern games into being, and sport today still largely moves to long-passed rhythms of industrial towns, the rapid currents of city life might yet carry everything somewhere unexpected. 

A different place altogether.