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Paris is cleaning up the Seine in preparation for the 2024 Olympic Games

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For the 2024 Paris Olympics, organizers are making the Seine River a centerpiece of the Games, from the opening ceremony to some swimming events. But that requires cleaning up the famous waterway, and it's proving to be an uphill - or rather, upstream - battle. Reporter Rebecca Rosman sent us this report from Paris.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: The sun hasn't fully risen, but hundreds of spectators have lined up along the banks of the Seine to watch this historic moment

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On your mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ROSMAN: Fifty top athletes plunge into the river for the World Triathlon, a test of the open-water course for next year's Olympic Games.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLOWING)

BRYCE COLLARD: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: "It's a dream come true," says spectator Bryce Collard, who came here with his sister to cheer on French athlete Vincent Luis. Another excited onlooker is 31-year-old Fritz Laubinger, a German who has been living in Paris for six years.

FRITZ LAUBINGER: I mean, it's basically, like, a natural stadium, right? You have, like, so much areas on both sides of the river where you can go and watch. And, yeah, it's really, really awesome.

ROSMAN: Getting to this point, though, has been rocky at best. Two other triathlons scheduled for last month were canceled because of poor water quality. Another event in early August was scrapped at the last minute after storm runoff polluted the river. But Paris is investing more than $1.5 billion to clean up the Seine, and organizers of the Olympic Games insist the river will be ready for athletes come next summer.

PIERRE RABADAN: The River Seine is one of the main monuments of Paris.

ROSMAN: That's Pierre Rabadan, the deputy mayor in charge of sports. He says making the Seine swimmable isn't just for the Olympics. It's part of a wider plan to open up the river to the general public by 2025.

RABADAN: We would like to have a strong legacy after the official competition, and this maybe main legacy is to be able to reconnect people with the water and the water close to where they live, and that's the River Seine.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

ROSMAN: Swimming in the Seine was first banned in 1923 due to excessive water pollution, and various politicians have been promising to make it swimmable again for more than 30 years. The reason it's been such a challenge to see it through is because of how the city's sewage system works.

SAMUEL COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "The city inherited its sewage system," says Samuel Colin-Canivez, the city's chief engineer for sanitation works. He walks me through some of its history, which dates back to the 19th century under the famed engineer Eugene Belgrand.

COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Belgrand created a network of tunnels, he says, to help fight the spread of diseases like cholera. The system today has 1,500 miles of gravitational tunnels which deliver sewage and stormwater runoff to wastewater treatment plants. But when the heavy rain hits, the system can become overwhelmed, and excess water is dumped into the Seine.

COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: To keep that dirty stormwater at bay, says Colin-Canivez, the city is building a massive rainwater storage tank under a train station in southeast Paris. Once it's complete next spring, the tank will be able to hold water equivalent to the volume of 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: But he says even this colossal tank isn't a guarantee. The Seine will always be a storm drain.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ROSMAN: The organizers say competitions may be delayed if the water is declared too polluted right before an event, but they remain determined to use the Seine, and spectators like Fritz Laubinger are, too.

LAUBINGER: Apparently, now it's clean, so I wouldn't mind trying it out.

ROSMAN: And the athletes already are.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ROSMAN: For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES PETITS PARISIANS' "VALSE DE LA ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Rosman