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Tahiti surf tower sparks protests against Olympics ‘kooks’ before Paris 2024

Residents of the tiny Tahitian village of Teahupo’o say they are considering more protests to stop Olympic organisers building a three-story aluminium tower on a reef where the surfing competition for the 2024 Paris Games will be held.

Surfers around the world were thrilled when the perfect wave in front of Teahupo’o was chosen for the 2024 Games surfing event despite its location in French Polynesia, almost 16,000km (10,000 miles) from Paris. The idyllic lagoon-side village has long hosted some of the best contests on the professional World Surf League (WSL) tour, using a modest wooden tower for judges on the reef that is dismantled after every event.

Tahiti digs in to protect ‘most beautiful wave’ ahead of Olympic surf eventRead more

Paris 2024, which has highlighted its ambition to minimise the Games’ environmental impacts, plans to spend nearly $5m (£4.1m) to build a much larger tower with toilets, air-conditioning and space for 40 people that it says is needed to meet safety standards. Teahupo’o residents including Matahi Drollet, a famed surfer, say the new construction would cause significant damage to the coral reef, and risked impacting the marine ecosystem and the perfect wave itself.

“They have been using, judging, filming and doing lives from this actual tower for the professional WSL for the last 15 years,” Drollet said in a video message during a protest against the tower this month. “The impact and the risk are too important for only three days of contest.”

The WSL said it had used the existing tower “with the full support and approval of the Tahitian government”. “We believe it is important for Paris 2024 to engage with and listen to the local community as they contemplate their decisions related to the Olympic competition at this iconic wave,” it said in an emailed statement.

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An online petition calling for the scrapping of plans for the 14-metre (45-foot) aluminium scaffolding and 800m service channel through the reef had gathered more than 100,000 signatures by Friday.

“Our objective from the onset has been to minimise the impact this new tower has on Teahupo’o,” Paris 2024 said in a response, adding it wanted to work with residents and surfers to study “all possible options to improve the current project”.

Jet ski rescue teams watch the WSL Shiseido Tahiti pro surfing event from boats at Teahupo’o in August.Jet ski rescue teams watch the WSL Shiseido Tahiti pro surfing event from boats at Teahupo’o in August. Photograph: Jérôme Brouillet/AFP/Getty Images

Aimata Levy, vice-president of environmental association Vai Ara O Teahupoo, said residents were waiting for a proper ecological impact report and are expecting to discuss their concerns with Paris 2024 organisers in coming days. “For sure we will not accept any new foundations in the lagoon,” she said. “I listen to the [concerns about] the safety of the 40 people who will be on the scaffolding, their own security. I want them to hear, what about the security of the 40 families who live around and [use] this lagoon every day? It’s security for us too.”

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Josh Humbert, another protest organiser, said village residents were meeting to discuss further peaceful demonstrations about the tower and other Olympic works, including a bridge that had been built so close to the ocean it was likely to need a rock wall to stop erosion. “If they do that, it will kill the wave that all the kids learn to surf on … it’s like the training grounds before they become advanced surfers that can go out and tackle the much heavier reef,” said Humbert, a former president of the Teahupo’o Surf Club.

“The people who live in Teahupo’o, we’d love to see a good contest, we’d love to see it done properly,” he added. “The Olympics people, they’re what we would call in the surf world, kooks. They’re not surfers and they don’t understand how things work in surfing.”