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Reef damage from 2024 Olympics surfing venue is avoidable (commentary)

  • Parisians are not the only ones criticizing the 2024 Olympic Games: residents of Tahiti in French Polynesia are concerned about negative impacts on its celebrated reef from a surfing event venue being built in Teahupo’o.
  • A coalition of fishermen, farmers, surfers, and citizens of Teahupo’o have started a petition and have held at least one protest in hopes of forcing Olympic organizers to change their plans.
  • “If Paris 2024 intends to follow through with its promises to ‘bring about a new era’ of sustainability in the sporting world, it must take action to ensure that the Teahupo’o reef is left undamaged for its marine and human populations,” a new op-ed argues.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

From increased metro prices to severe security measures, the Paris 2024 Olympics have been coming under increasing pressure from Parisians. Yet its citizens are not the only locals who are critiquing the games.

Residents of Tahiti, French Polynesia, where the Olympic surfing event is to be held, have been engaged in discussions with the Paris 2024 Olympic Committee for months over the environmental impacts of the event venue construction in the town and bay of Teahupo’o.

Located 10,000 miles from Paris, the small town of 1,500 inhabitants will host the Olympic surfing event from July 27-30, 2024. Unsurprisingly there are mixed reactions to the event that will bring hordes of spectators, officials, staff, and security details to the island.

Design concept of the new surfing tower. Image via Paris 2024 Olympic Committee.
Design concept for the new surfing tower. Image via Paris 2024 Olympic Committee.

But plans to build a new judging tower for the surfing competition are being met with strong resistance from local surfers and fishermen. Earlier this year, the Olympic Committee released plans for the $5 million aluminum tower, to be built in place of an existing wooden tower.

Efforts to protest the plans for the tower have come from the locals themselves, primarily through a community group called the Vai Ara o Teahupo’o Association. Social media campaigns led by Tahitian big wave pro surfer Matahi Drollet have garnered much support on Instagram and TikTok. One protest which drew 400 supporters was explicitly not against the games but only against the plans to build the tower. “It is a heritage of our ancestors that we need to preserve,” writes Drollet. “Our association is a group of fishermen, farmers, surfers, the population of Teahupo’o, young, and old.” An online petition spearheaded by the Vai Ara o Teahupo’o Association now has over 195,000 signatures.

In response to the protests, the Polynesian Government, Paris 2024, and the Haut-Commissariat released a statement that outlined new plans for the judging tower this week. According to the report, using the existing wooden tower is not a possibility, as the foundations are no longer up to standards. Bolstering and renovating the wooden tower was also not an option since it would have a “greater impact on the coral reef that has grown on the concrete blocks over the years than building new foundations in an area with less coral.”

Therefore, the Olympic Committee has made a final decision to continue with the building of the new aluminum tower, with some modifications. The surface area of the tower will be 25% smaller than the original plans, making it the same size as the existing wooden tower. The weight of the new tower will now be nine tons – instead of the original 14 tons – to reduce the load on the foundations, and will be installed on the same site as the old wooden tower.

The original design required 72 rods measuring four meters tall to be drilled down into the reef and filled with concrete. The smaller size of the tower supposedly means that these foundation rods will not have to be driven down as far into the seabed. Plans to have drinking water and wastewater connections to the mainland have been scrapped, and internet and submarine electric cables will be removed after the event. The bulk of the proposed Olympic aluminum tower will be temporary, however, a 3-meter pole above sea level will remain.

Peaceful protest against the tower construction. Photo courtesy of Thomas Belvicaqua.

The committee has also claimed that the tower will be built in an area with fewer corals, the existing corals will be moved, and cuttings will be taken to ensure they can regrow. But Titouan Bernicot, CEO of Coral Gardeners, claims that the process of replanting and planting new corals is a long and challenging process and that the removal of the coral will have damaging effects for years to come.

Activists are still unhappy with this arrangement, as it is clear that the reef will still be impacted by the new plans. They reject the assessment of the Olympic Committee that the foundations of the wooden tower are unsafe. Mati Hoffman, who worked on the construction of the wooden tower, claims that the foundations are still sound and had been built up to technical standards. Locals were not only concerned about the impact of the tower itself, but have questioned the effects of the transportation barges that travel across the coral reef, bringing equipment and supplies to the building site.

To address this worry, the statement assured locals that a smaller motorized barge with a shallow draft would be used for transportation, and invited the involved parties to observe and assess the route between the building site and the shore.

However, new videos from the @saveteahupoo Instagram account showed a barge at the building site on Dec 1, 2023. One video shows a barge, verified by witnesses as belonging to the local government, inspecting the proposed tower’s site. The barge repeatedly gets stuck on the coral reef and attempts to free itself by revving the engines.

The video also depicts the damage done to corals by the propeller: large groups of colorful coral have been sliced off, revealing the white skeleton within. This directly refutes the claim by the Olympic Committee statement that the smaller barge would eliminate “any risk of damage to the coral.”

Screenshots of Matahai Drollet’s Instagram story depicting damage to coral reef caused by the barge. Dec 1, 2023.
Screenshots of Matahai Drollet’s December 1, 2023, Instagram story depicting damage to the coral reef caused by the barge.

Activists are calling for the Olympics to simply use the existing wooden tower, which has been used for international surfing competitions, such as the recent World Surf League SHISEIDO Tahiti Pro in August 2023. Drawing upon prior research on coral reefs and the insights from local experts, activists foresee numerous, enduring and far-reaching consequences stemming from the proposed plans.

Drilling into the coral reef and building a concrete base will impact the delicate marine ecosystem, according to local activist Celeste Brash, having unforeseen impacts on biodiversity and the local fishing economy. Ciguatera, a dangerous neurotoxin that comes from microalgae that grows on dead coral, has long been a problem for fishermen in Tahiti. By disrupting the coral reef, ciguatera levels will rise, and although it is harmless to the fish themselves, the toxin makes the fish inedible, negatively impacting Teahupo’o subsistence fishermen and the locals.

As well as having high environmental risks, the proposed project could impact the famous wave of Teahupo’o which is well known as being one of the most challenging breaks in the world. Local surfers stress the fact that disruption to the structure of the reef could “modify or change our wave, and in the worst-case scenario, make it disappear for a few years,” claims pro surfer Drollet. “The ocean and the lagoon is the most precious place we have here…This is where we have the most perfect wave in the world.” Ironically, the Olympic Games could destroy the very thing that originally drew them to Tahiti.

Following the protest and social media campaigns led by Matahai Drollet, many pro surfers, such as 11-time world champ Kelly Slater, have voiced their support. Five out of the fourteen surfers who have already qualified for next year’s Olympics have also given their support publicly on Instagram: Vahine Fierro, Johanne Defay (France), Carissa Moore (USA), Kanoa Igarashi (Japan) and Felipe Toledo (Brazil). At this time, the French Polynesian government has decided to “pause all further testing and preparations to draw lessons following the incident on the reef.”

Mobilizing the rest of the pro surfing circuit, especially qualified athletes, would be key to forcing action from the Paris organizing committee. More surfers and the sport’s governing associations must take responsibility for the impact of their sport on the environment and utilize their platforms and collective power to catalyze action from the IOC.

Recently, the International Surfing Association released a statement emphasizing that venue construction falls under the purview of the Paris 2024 Organizing Committee and the French Polynesian Government. Despite being an International Olympic Federation responsible for organizing the competition, the ISA seems to be adopting a more passive stance on the controversy, limited to endorsing the decision to halt construction.

Coral reefs in Tahiti are rich with life. Image by Jayne Jenkins / Ocean Image Bank.
Coral reefs in Tahiti are rich with life. Image by Jayne Jenkins / Ocean Image Bank.

Despite the controversy over the tower plans, it is important to note that Paris 2024 has given more thought to sustainability initiatives compared to other Olympic Games, intending to reduce the carbon footprint by 50% compared to previous years. Infrastructure projects have been kept to a minimum, following talks with the Polynesian Government and in line with the Paris 2024 sustainability commitment that 95% of the infrastructure for the Games will either be already in existence or be temporary. For example, instead of building a miniature Olympic Village on the island, athletes and their teams will be housed on a cruise ship in the Teahupo’o bay; this is a plan which comes with its own issues.

Benefits of the event include new infrastructure, including a pedestrian bridge and fiber internet cables, which will be beneficial to the islanders after the games have concluded. Staff and officials will stay in rented houses owned by locals, bringing money into the local economy. Furthermore, the beauty of the island’s natural resources and culture will be broadcast to the entire world, boosting tourism to the islands.

The surf at Teahupo'o in French Polynesia is world renowned. Image via Paris 2024 Olympic Committee.
The break at Teahupo’o in French Polynesia is world renowned. Image via Paris 2024 Olympic Committee.

Although Paris is undoubtedly making a concerted effort to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impact, the judging tower is a prime example of greenwashing. For example, although they have committed to 95% temporary or existing infrastructure, this does not account for the impacts of construction and the invisible infrastructure that is being drilled into the seabed. The environmental impacts of this project will be long-lasting, signaling that environmental conservation is not a priority of the Olympic Committee or the Polynesian Government. Putting ecosystems and livelihoods on the line for four days of competition is not a risk that any truly environmentally-focused organization would take.

Too often have the Olympic Games swept issues like this under the rug in the name of international cooperation and ‘Olympic standards.’ If Paris 2024 intends to follow through with its promises to “bring about a new era” of sustainability in the sporting world, it must take action to ensure that the Teahupo’o reef is left undamaged for its marine and human populations. Doing this would signify that the Olympic Committee has taken into account the wishes of the local people, and has stuck to their promises.


Georgina Seal is a recent graduate of Columbia University, where she studied Sustainable Development and History. As a college athlete, she has been especially interested in the social impact of sports, and has researched the environmental impact of recent Olympic Games.

See related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: If current conditions line up just right, ‘we could lose a huge part of the Great Barrier Reef by February 2024,’ our guest says, listen here:

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