France reaps benefits from London's Olympic Games
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Paris may have lost out to London in its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, but as many teams opt to base themselves in northern France, the legacy and financial benefits of Britain's two-week sporting fiesta have stretched across the Channel.
When London was chosen ahead of Paris to host the sporting bonanza of the 2012 Olympic Games, there was the expected outburst of “Sacrebleu!” among authorities in the French capital.
But in contrast to those in Paris, one French official not too far away was celebrating the decision as if he had just won a gold medal.
Dominique Dupilet, the president of the council of Pas de Calais, the department in north France nearest to Britain, realised that Paris’ loss could be their gain.
“Within seconds of hearing London had won the games, we hoisted the British flag at the council because we knew it was an opportunity,” said Dupilet.
The challenge for Dupilet and his colleagues was to convince national delegations to base their teams in France rather than the seemingly more obvious choice, on the other side of the channel.
Even the British have crossed the channel
While Olympic organisers LOCOG were trying to entice national delegations to use UK-based training caps by offering them a £25,000 incentive, Pas de Calais launched a persuasive marketing campaign promoting the advantages of northern France -- the main one being that the region’s transport hub in the city of Calais was a mere 57-minute train ride away from London, by Eurostar.
“We were sure that most Olympic teams would have to pass through our region en route to the games,” said Dupilet. “We are only one hour from London. Basically, if you were staying in the north of London, it would you the same amount of time to get to the Olympic sites as it would do from Calais.”
As well as flying to China to lobby delegations at the 2008 Beijing games, the Pas de Calais council invested €115 million to improve its sporting facilities in 13 towns across the region.
An exact replica of the 2012 Olympic BMX track was built in the town of Lumbres, a Greco-Roman wrestling centre was built in Marquise, and the world’s biggest and most advanced gymnastics centre was constructed in the town of Arques.
In April, LOCOG chief Seb Coe proudly announced that 93 National Olympic Committees had signed up to use training camps in Britain. But on the other side of La Manche, Pas de Calais had quietly persuaded just under half that number of delegations -- 41 -- to base their training camps in northern France.
Among the teams currently gearing up in northern France for the London Games are New Zealand’s hockey players, Madagascar’s boxers, and the Tunisian swimming team. Kayakers from Samoa and Senegal are also taking advantage of a new Kayak centre near Arras, and, in what could be considered a minor coup for Pas de Calais officials, the British gymnastic team decided to hold their pre-training camp in Arques.
Even Britain’s boxers are working up a sweat on French soil.
As well its proximity to the British capital, Pas de Calais authorities also promoted the fact their region offered a cheaper alternative to London with a similar climate.
With two weeks to go before the Olympic flame is lit to officially open the Games, athletes are acclimatising for the conditions of competing in a miserable British summer by training under the grey, rainy skies of northern France.
Pas de Calais’ investment already appears to be paying off: Director of Sports for Pas de Calais regional council, Stéphane Bourgeois, told FRANCE 24 that up to now the areas hotels, restaurants and public transport systems have reaped revenues of some €1.3 million.
With the build up to London’s sporting fiesta dogged by fears of transport chaos and terrorist attacks, northern France offers athletes a bit of peace and calm before the storm.
“There is a feeling of Zen about the camps in Pas de Calais. It allows [athletes] to train in peace but without getting too bored,” Thierry Tassez, vice-president of Artois council, told FRANCE INFO radio.
Lasting legacy not just for London
One of the reasons London was awarded the games in 2005 was the bid’s ability to convince voters on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that there would be positive and lasting legacy for London once the games were over.
But thanks to the bold decision by authorities in Pas de Calais, future generations in France will also benefit from the legacy of London 2012.
“We knew it was an opportunity for us to renew all our facilities and then the local population can take advantage of them after the Olympics,” a spokesman for the Pas-De Calais tourist board told FRANCE 24.
While pleased with their efforts, authorities in France nonetheless accept that their success might have needled their counterparts in Britain.
“We have never been questioned by the Olympic authorities in London but we understand if they might be annoyed by the success of Pas de Calais in attracting teams here,” the council’s Director of sports Stephane Bourgeois told FRANCE 24.
Yet despite the snub by so many delegations, LOCOG insists -- publicly at least -- that it holds no grudges against Pas de Calais, or those teams who have been tempted across the channel.
“I don’t think anyone here would say it was unreasonable for teams to base themselves in northern France,” a source at LOCOG told France 24. “Why not if it suits them? Why shouldn’t Pas de Calais try and benefit from the Olympics. This is good news all round. The Olympics is a global event.”