As a major global event, the 2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games have received plenty of news coverage this summer. However, the spotlight isn’t only on athletic prowess and global unity. Controversial topics abound, from doping scandals to environmental concerns, casting a shadow over the events. 

As the Associated Press writes, “The Olympics frequently have been embroiled in scandals or corruption, perhaps due to the large amount of public money involved and rushed deadlines.” That’s why using Signal AI’s AI-powered platform, we analyzed external intelligence to report on four major controversies surfacing, their potential impact on the Olympics’ reputation, and the key political figures involved.

Key takeaways:

  1. Plunging into the Seine did not calm concerns about its cleanliness: Paris’ $1.5B investment to clean the Seine for the 2024 Olympics increased pollution scrutiny by 12x, halving sentiment. Media coverage of the Minister of Sport diving into the Seine, the sole official who fulfilled their promise to demonstrate its cleanliness, failed to make waves.
  2. Corruption discussions were revived in February but quickly slipped into oblivion: Less than 1% of Olympic conversations focused on corruption. The majority (83%) occurred in February during investigations into Tony Estanguet’s pay.
  3. The hijab ban remains a small – but very controversial – part of the conversation. As the 2024 Olympics near, France’s hijab ban has gained more attention. News coverage quadrupled from Q1 to Q2 2024, while sentiment dropped by 48 percentage points.
  4. Tokyo’s Olympic doping controversies cast a shadow over the upcoming Paris Olympics: The WADA is cited in 48% of Summer Olympics news articles, and the Tokyo doping controversy persists in 40% of the Paris Olympics doping coverage.

Paris’ $1.5B pledge to clean the Seine for the 2024 Olympics sparked scrutiny amid symbolic efforts by officials

Paris pledged to clean up the Seine River for the 2024 Summer Olympics despite a century-long ban on swimming due to contamination from wastewater during heavy rain. To fulfill this commitment, the city invested $1.5 billion in infrastructure, including a large underground tank and tunnel system to manage stormwater overflow and reduce E. coli levels.

This promise sharply focused attention on river pollution, triggering a twelvefold increase in news coverage from the first to the second quarter of 2024. Yet, it also subjected the plan and the Seine’s crucial Olympic role to intense scrutiny, resulting in sentiment plummeting by half and turning negative by June.

To tackle the growing concerns about pollution, French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra and Paralympic champion Alexis Hanquinquant swam near Paris’s iconic bridges to demonstrate the river’s cleanliness ahead of the Olympics. This symbolic move, however, failed to impress. 

The dive was mentioned in only 13.45% of news coverage about the Seine’s role in the ceremony and games, with most news outlets reacting neutrally (see Fig. 1). Mentions of promises by President Macron and Mayor Anne Hidalgo to swim in the Seine improved their reputations, although they haven’t yet taken the plunge.

Raids on Paris 2024 headquarters unveil corruption suspicions, shaking public trust for Emmanuel Macron

French financial police searched the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics Committee in June 2023 as part of investigations into alleged misappropriation of public funds and favoritism. 

The probes underscore ongoing scrutiny over transparency and integrity in managing major sporting events, following controversies like Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics, which are mentioned in 13% of reports about corruption in the Paris Olympics. 

However, conversations around corruption are dimming, accounting for less than 1% of mentions one year after the events. These conversations peaked in February, with 83% of mentions, when another investigation into the pay of chief organizer Tony Estanguet was revealed.

These actions have raised concerns about potential reputational damage for French President Emmanuel Macron, a key figure in the debate and more frequently mentioned than prominent athletes like Simone Biles and Lionel Messi (see Fig. 2). 

France’s hijab ban remains a small but increasingly controversial topic in the Summer Olympics conversations

Announced by French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the hijab ban has drawn widespread criticism for conflicting with Olympic values of diversity, equality, and cultural respect.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) opposes the ban, asserting no restrictions on religious or cultural attire at the games. Critics have supported this stance, arguing that France’s decision violates personal freedoms. They contend it unfairly targets the Muslim community, echoing past controversial measures like bans on religious symbols in schools and sports events.

Initially citing secularism and neutrality in public services, French authorities subdued public attention on the ban in early 2024. However, as the games neared and activist groups engaged, scrutiny sharply intensified.

Despite its peripheral status, accounting for a maximum of 0.76% of all Summer Olympics mentions (see Fig. 3), the second quarter of 2024 witnessed a quadrupling of mentions of the hijab ban alongside a 48-point drop in sentiment.

The doping cloud has darkened over the Games, with allegations of systemic abuse tarnishing athlete integrity

The UK Anti-Doping Agency has joined the chorus demanding an independent review of the World Anti-Doping Agency‘s (WADA) handling of Chinese swimmers who tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance. In early 2020, 23 Chinese athletes reportedly tested positive, but China attributed the results to accidental ingestion from a hotel kitchen. Despite subsequent revelations by media outlets sparking global scrutiny and accusations of a cover-up, WADA defended its decision, citing legal advice and lack of evidence to challenge China’s findings. This controversy, however, persists, influencing 40% of the doping coverage related to the Paris event.

Criticism intensified as elite athletes prepared for the Paris Olympics, with calls for WADA’s overhaul to ensure consistent and fair enforcement of anti-doping rules. But after four years of the Tokyo Olympics, the public and the media seem to have forgiven the controversy. WADA is mentioned in nearly half (48%) of all mentions of doping regarding the 2024 Summer Olympics, with nearly 78% of that coverage being neutral and only 3% being negative.

USADA and UK Anti-Doping have demanded independent investigations to restore trust in global anti-doping efforts. At the same time, voices like Michael Phelps, Richard Gasquet, and Jean-Claude Duvalier within the sports community express concerns over fairness and integrity ahead of the upcoming games. While influential, these voices are mentioned in only 8% of all news coverage concerning doping in the Summer Olympics.

What now?

The Seine’s cleanup, corruption investigations, hijab ban controversy, and doping allegations paint a tumultuous canvas for the reputation of the Paris 2024 Olympics. Despite substantial financial investments and symbolic gestures, public and media sentiment reveal skepticism and a demand for greater transparency and fairness. 

Protecting the Olympic Games’ reputation demands vigilant monitoring of public concerns to safeguard integrity and rebuild trust.

Signal AI’s Reputation Risk Management external risk intelligence tools enable proactive threat detection, safeguarding businesses so they can be more strategic in their approach to controversial topics. We offer solutions for reputation & risk professionals to monitor emerging threats and enact more preemptive risk mitigation.

*The research timeframe is from January – June 2024 unless otherwise specified.