French swimmers denied chance to race through Paris

As France’s swimmers gave a stunning performance at the London Games, the Paris police authorities put the brakes on an attempt to revive a once-popular swimming race through the capital. Organisers remain determined to make it happen next year.


An attempt to resurrect an historic swimming race through the heart of Paris has been scuppered by the city authorities – who say the Seine is neither clean nor safe enough for the event to go ahead.

The “Traversée de Paris a la Nage” [swim across Paris] was due to take place on September 2 for the first time in nearly 70 years.

But the Préfecture de Police de Paris (PP) pulled the plug on the event on Monday August 7, deeming the river water to be “of manifestly insufficient quality for swimming” despite “significant improvements in recent years.”

The two proposed races, of 2.5km and 10km and timetabled to take a total of four hours, would also put an unacceptable brake on the river’s busy commercial and tourist traffic and place the swimmers in unacceptable danger, the PP said.

It was a big disappointment for “Paris Swim”, the association that had been preparing for the event since May and had 3,300 paying competitors lined up.

According to the Paris Swim website, which was still promoting the September event on Tuesday, the Seine is cleaner than it has been for many decades and now has 30 different species of fish, compared with just three in 1970.

In 1988, former French president and then-Paris mayor Jacques Chirac vowed that he would clean up the river and make it an acceptable place to bathe by the end of his term in office in 1994.

But swimming in the Seine remains a banned activity.

“We were surprised about the PP’s statement on water quality,” said event organiser Laurent Neuville, a former French Olympic swimmer. “We’ll be doing everything we can to get them to reverse the decision, including conducting new analyses of the water.”

Dangerous traffic

Doubly frustrating for the organisers is the argument that the race would impede vital river traffic and put the swimmers’ in physical danger because of the many vessels moored along the banks of the Seine.

“We thought we had got this right,” Neuville told FRANCE 24. “We planned for a very short interruption, with the race starting at 7 am and with everyone out of the water by 10.30 am."

“Obviously, it was not enough, and we doubt the PP will change its mind, but now we know the constraints and we will be better prepared for next year.”

The 1931 Traversée de Paris a la Nage

The first Traversée de Paris a la Nage took place in 1905. By 1926 the event was so popular that an estimated one million spectators lined the Seine to cheer on their sporting heroes.

The race attracted the biggest names in French and international swimming, rivalling the Tour de France as the country’s most recognised sporting event.

After a few disputed races during the German occupation, it was permanently cancelled in 1945.

With France topping the tables in swimming events at the London Olympics, organisers had hoped a rebirth of this historic competition would make Paris the swimming capital of the world.

“I’m not sure if we could ever hope to give it the same status as the Tour de France, but we want to re-establish a race that will attract the world’s best swimmers to Paris,” said Neuville.

“We are determined that the Traversée de Paris a la Nage will happen, if not this year then definitely in 2013.”

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