The Olympics' Tale of Two Cities
By Rachel Tiplady
It seems that the contest for hosting the 2012 Summer Olympic Games has narrowed to the two cities I know best: Paris and London. With announcement of the winner scheduled for July 6 in Singapore, I feel torn as to which to root for. I'm a thoroughbred Londoner, but have spent the last three years in Paris with my French boyfriend of nine years. So let's face it, whichever city I pick, I run the risk of being labeled a traitor.
Each city has a few trump cards. So, here is my as-objective-as-possible look at the two top contenders, taking into account what each can offer and how it could excel come 2012, English food and French hospitality notwithstanding.
Perhaps it would help to start by exploding the myth that London is just a gray city. It has beautiful outdoor spaces. As I stood at the highest point of South London's Greenwich Park two weekends ago, breathing the clean air and watching squirrels frolic in the open hills, I reflected on how London often gets a bum rap when compared to Paris. Greenwich, the oldest of London's royal parks, dates back to 1433 and serves as testament to the fact that the capital offers far more than just office blocks.
Indeed, if you're a sports fan who likes vast green spaces, London will work for you. One of the key selling points of its bid, Greenwich, is just 15 minutes on the train from London's center. It lies near prestigious and beautiful Hyde and Regent's parks and the city's yet-to-be-built Olympic Park and Village in the East End. Greenwich would host the pentathlon, gymnastics, and equestrian events.
Greenwich has also already proved itself worthy of major sporting events. Having watched the start of the London Marathon at Greenwich Park's gates for many years, I've seen how the area can accommodate tens of thousands of sports fans and players descending on its grassy fields. Paris' vast but unappealing Bois de Boulogne, with its poor grass and lack of central features, looks pretty shabby by comparison.
The City of Light, however, excels in its tightly planned urban bid that focuses on turning the city center over to walkers. The athletes' village would sit within the city limits, and many of the events would take place here, too.
Imagine volleyball games in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in the west, music and dance in the Tuileries Gardens (no sitting on the grass allowed, unfortunately), and indoor sports at the modern Bercy Dome in the east. The city would pedestrianize many of the traffic-heavy boulevards.
Flâner, the French word meaning to stroll or meander, is often used to describe how to best appreciate Paris. Even with an event the size of the Olympics, sports fans could still soak up the atmosphere from the human level of the street.
"Paris already scores top marks for ambiance, and that's something the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can't write a report about," says Ed Hula, founder and editor of the Olympic news Web site AroundTheRings.com. While the centers of Paris and London are pretty much equal in size, the French capital makes for a far more pleasurable experience -- on foot or otherwise.
And otherwise is not a small consideration. London says that, if awarded the Games, it will spend more than $30 billion on transport, particularly on improvements to connections in the east. And does it need every cent of them! The IOC may find London's transport plan acceptable, but I beg to differ. I have too many memories of commutes that took twice as long as they should have.
As long as you can rise above the powerful bouquet of urine that wafts around the Metro due to the large number of tramps who sleep on the platforms (aaah, so French!), Paris is your best bet for superefficient travel. The city already contends with 35 million tourists each year -- more than any other in the world. Transportation costs around 50% less in Paris than in London, although both cities have pledged free travel for Olympics ticket holders.
If Paris wins the bid, sports fans can count on paying less than $36 for just under half of all tickets, with the cheapest seats to all events coming in at $12. The cheapest ticket for London 2012 would be more than double that -- $27 -- for preliminary events.
On the other end of the scale, a VIP box ticket to the opening ceremony at Paris' 80,000-capacity Stade de France would cost around $1,100. The same in London would set you back $1,600, although you'd have the added frisson of sitting in a brand-new stadium designed by Spanish architect Alejandro Zaero-Pollo.
Accommodations will be pretty steep in both cities. But unlike London, Paris has already locked in prices for thousands of hotel rooms to avoid a repeat of Athens, where some places bumped rates up 100% for the 2004 Games.
Of course, Paris' reputation for rudeness to foreigners doesn't exactly work in the city's favor. But the truth is, Parisians are rude to everyone. Even if you speak fluent French or indeed are French, you will still be looked down upon by the city's misanthropic denizens and their equally snooty dogs.
But the capital is working on its attitude. Opinion polls have found that Parisians want the Games far more than Londoners -- 85% vs. 68%, according to the IOC. Still not convinced? The bid committee chose to use English -- not French -- as its first language for all marketing campaigns and reports. In recent weeks, the French capital's taxi union agreed to give its drivers English lessons if the city wins the bid. No word on whether London will do the same for its Cockney cabbies!
A JUMPING SUMMER.
Yet, above and beyond the matters of language, cost, geography, and transportation, what really matters to me is how well a city brings communities together. Every August, London stages the Notting Hill Carnival, the world's second-biggest (after Rio's) such event, during which 1.5 million people come together for three days of street-partying to celebrate the music and spirit of the Caribbean.
While London indeed does a wonderful job with the event -- the highlight of the summer -- Paris outstrips its rival with a nonstop series of free events that vibrate the city center for three months. Whether it's Paris Plage, the 1.5-mile monthlong free beach party along the Seine, the Jazz Festival, the two free outdoor cinema festivals, or the hundreds of pavement cafés that provide a unique vantage point for all of these events, Paris proves that summer means bringing people together on a daily basis -- all season long.
If you're a businessperson looking to see the Games and close a few deals on the side, you'll probably want to pull for London. But if, like me, you're an Olympics fan who wants to visit a city that pulsates with love of sport, culture, and fun, c'est Paris.
Tiplady is a writer in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau
Edited by Patricia O'Connell