Golden bonuses and revolving doors: behind the scenes of the Paris Olympic Games bid


French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday held a party at the Elysée Palace to celebrate the International Olympic Committee’s announcement this week that Paris will host the 2024 summer Olympic Games for the first time in 100 years. But away from the celebrations at the Elysée, attended by former presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, questions are raised about the financial management of the “Paris 2024” entity that led the French campaign, and the golden bonus payments that its directors are now due to pocket. Antton Rouget reports on the business behind the bid.

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Inside the conference centre in the Peruvian capital Lima, there was jubilation among the French delegation, and notably tears of joy in the eyes of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Wednesday approved the awarding of the 2024 summer Olympic Games to Paris, and those of 2028 to Los Angeles – the only two candidates for either. It will be the first time the French capital has hosted the summer Olympics in 100 years.

It was also the first time that a simultaneous double award for the Games was made by the IOC, and after the withdrawal of candidatures from Budapest, Hamburg and Rome, daunted by the funds required for investing in infrastructures, and public opposition to the outlay, it was something of a formality. When the IOC met in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July this year and approved the awarding of the 2024 and 2028 events at the same time, the choice appeared to be sealed, as witnessed by the beaming faces of the French attendees, who included newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron and Hidalgo.

But barely four years ago, few people believed in the possibility that Paris could or should become a candidate for the 2024 Olympic Games, including some within the then-socialist government. The doubters cited the cost of hosting the games, the successive corruption scandals that had tarnished the IOC, and the bitter deception and recriminations when Paris lost its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, won by London.

In this report on the background of the Paris 2024 bid, Mediapart interviewed several leading figures in the French sporting world, and former sports ministry officials (most of whom spoke on condition their name was withheld), and also obtained access to documents summarizing meetings at ministerial level and others from within the bodies promoting the candidature of the French capital.

Championing the Paris 2024 bid against the odds were three men; Bernard Lapasset, Étienne Thobois and Tony Estanguet. Lapasset was chairman of World Rugby, the governing body of rugby union, from 2008 to 2016, and played a key role in France being awarded host for the 2007 rugby World Cup. Thobois, a former badminton player, including at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, who later graduated from Paris business school ESCP, has long worked as a lobbyist in sport, including for the Paris bid for the 2008 Olympics. Estanguet was three times an Olympics gold medallist in slalom canoeing and a gold and silver medallist in numerous international canoeing competitions until he retired from the sport five years ago (after winning a gold medal at the 2012 London games).

Right to left: Bernard Lapasset, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, Tony Estanguet and Étienne Thobois. © Right to left: Bernard Lapasset, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, Tony Estanguet and Étienne Thobois. ©

In April 2013, an ambitious Lapasset created the French Committee for International Sport (Comité français du sport international), the CFSI, which was dedicated to promoting France as host for the Olympic Games. Lapasset had on paper the ideal profile for being the leader of the project. With a solid reputation in the sporting world, his experience with, and knowledge of, the IOC dates from his successful project to include rugby sevens (with teams of just seven players) into the Olympics.

As of 2013, Lapasset lobbied the French government to back the Paris 2024 bid, and succeeded in convincing the then-foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius to use his ministry’s diplomatic network to promote the project. In January 2014, his deputy at the CFSI, Michaël Aloïsio, a former official with the French sports ministry and the French taekwondo federation, met with members of the “inter-ministerial delegation for economic intelligence” which was attached to the French prime minister’s office. Mediapart has gained access to a number of ministerial reports and documents from the French committee leading the Paris 2024 bid, and that first meeting with Aloïsio was, according to official notes, aimed at “mapping the different boards and secondary bodies of different authorities, notably those of the International Olympic Committee”, and to begin lobbying them by “striking up appropriate alliances with public and private actors and with other very influential committees”.

Lapasset, meanwhile, would succeed in convincing then-prime minister Manuel Valls and then-president François Hollande to publicly announce, on November 6th 2014,  that they were “in favour” of Paris launching a bid.

A letter dated September 2014 from Bernard Lapasset to then French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius, in which Lapasset requests the help of “the French diplomatic network” for information about rival national bids for the Olympic Games, and also in making contact with French expatriates who might help with the French bid. © Document Mediapart A letter dated September 2014 from Bernard Lapasset to then French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius, in which Lapasset requests the help of “the French diplomatic network” for information about rival national bids for the Olympic Games, and also in making contact with French expatriates who might help with the French bid. © Document Mediapart

That statement of intent was concretised by the creation, at the end of 2015, of “Paris 2024”, a business structure “of public interest”, (groupement d’intérêt public, or GIP) which was given 30 million euros from public funds (made up of 10 million euros each from the state, the Greater Paris region authorities and the Paris City Hall) and another 30 million euros from private-sector partners. In effect, the GIP was controlled by sports bodies; the French National Olympic and Sports Committee (CNOSF) and the French Paralympic and Sports Committee (CPSF) were together given 55% of voting rights within its board and general assembly, while the public partners (the state, Greater Paris region authorities and Paris City Hall) held 15% each, representing the remaining 45% of voting rights.

The sports bodies would show little effort in keeping the public informed of the GIP’s actions. While its spending was overseen by a state financial inspector, the detail of this was never made public. An internal document seen by Mediapart gives only an overall picture of its principal spending. The most costly outlay was on salaries. With a staff of around 50 (as estimated by financial daily La Tribune) the total that was paid in salaries over the period of less than three years that the GIP was active amounted to 14 million euros. The second most costly outlay was planning and studies, totalling about 12 million euros, followed by PR communications, at 10 million euros. “International Relations”, which notably included “intelligence and analysis”, was allocated almost 6 million euros.

There is a similar opacity surrounding the payment of bonuses. According to information given to Mediapart, a vote of the Paris 2024 executive committee on August 29th 2017 approved the attribution of “success bonuses” to be paid to staff. These were conditional on the IOC awarding the 2024 Olympic Games to Paris, along with achieving a financial surplus and the raising of 30 million euros from private funds. All three conditions were met. But the bonuses are a point of controversy, including among those closely involved in the bid, firstly because the “success” of the Paris bid was obtained in the absence of any competition after the withdrawal of Budapest, Hamburg and Rome and with Los Angeles content to go for the 2028 event. Secondly, a large number of those receiving the bonus will in all probability be re-employed in the different structures created for the organisation of the games. Lastly, but not least, the bonuses were calculated in proportion to the salaries of those concerned. While those paid to the collaborators who helped in their spare time at weekends and evenings are modest, the total will swell significantly with those paid to the senior members of the Paris 2024 team.  

Contacted by Mediapart, the GIP said the bonuses will total “12% of remunerations of all the staff, with a maximum ceiling fixed at three times the average value”. But it did not provide a table of the salaries in question nor did it clarify if the “remunerations” were monthly, yearly or those paid for the whole period of the project.

As of the moment the “Paris 2024” structure was created, Lapasset assigned his close allies to key posts. Besides Aloïsio, Lapasset appointed as managing director Étienne Thobois – who worked closely with him on France’s successful bid to host the 2007 rugby World Cup. In 2008, together with others involved in organising the 2007 rugby World Cup, founded Keneo, a firm specialized in the organisation of sporting events and which in ten years has become a dominant player in the market. In 2011, Keneo was commissioned by the French National Olympic and Sports Committee, the CNOSF, to prepare a report analyzing the last four failed French bids to host the Olympic Games. The report, to which was added a feasibility study commissioned by the CFSI and completed in February 2015, served as a roadmap for the Paris 2024 team. In the conclusions of the report, Keneo insisted on the need for a “sporting movement” which it said previous unsuccessful bids lacked and which should be an element of the candidature for 2024. A former sports ministry official, speaking on condition his name was withheld, described the report as “a big con” and that it contained a “very Anglo-Saxon logic, corresponding with Bernard Lapasset’s vision, and aimed at removing the public powers from decision-making”. 

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