Tahitians Fighting New Olympic Judging Tower at Teahupo'o Hope to Sway Paris 2024 Organizers

Locals think the current judging tower is more than sufficient and want to save the precious reef. Photo: 2019 Tahiti Pro//WSL

The Inertia

As protests pick up steam in Tahiti opposing the proposed plans to build a new, aluminum judging tower on the reef at Teahupo’o, locals anxiously await news from Paris 2024. Their goal is to persuade the Olympic Games organizers to revert back to the wood tower that has historically been used.

Currently, a petition to stop the construction of the tower is circulating and has received close to 100,00 signatures. Among the most vocal opponents of the project has been Teahupo’o local Lorenzo Avvenenti. From participating in the protests, to daily posts and updates on social media, Avvenenti fears what his home could become if proper measures aren’t taken. 

“I’m fighting so hard because I know how precious Teahupo’o is,” said Avvenenti, 30, who was born and raised in Tahiti. “They are trying to touch one of the last pristine parts of the world. We are not rich in money, but we are so rich in nature. They are trying to destroy our riches – the only thing we got. I want my kids to be able to catch their own fish for dinner like I’ve been doing my whole life. I want them to be able to get their lobsters on the reef at night – just the simple things.”

While the judging tower has brought the opposition movement the international media attention that they seek, according to Avvenenti the damage has already begun. He blames devastating flooding in May of this year on an unfinished bridge project related to the Olympics and highlights the destruction of a productive taro farm to make room for a “rest area” for the athletes.

“The government told us that if we had drained the river it would have prevented the flooding,” said Avvenenti. “It’s just a bunch of bullsh*t. In 100 years we never drained the river during way heavier rains. We don’t need to be a scientist (to see the construction was the cause of the problem), but those people are so stubborn.”

“This taro farmer was giving food to all the schools of Tahiti,” added Avvenenti. “He was the biggest supplier of taro. It took ten years to make the perfect dirt to grow the taro like this, but now they have filled it up with rocks.”  

As part of the campaign to bring attention to their cause, French surf photographer Romuald Pliquet, who called Tahiti home for eight years, has been helping circulate information internationally. He has organized and outlined the demands and concerns from the Teahupo’o locals.

“It’s a fight between David and Goliath,” said Pliquet. “So far (the local government and Paris 2024) haven’t paid attention to our movement.” 

According to Pliquet, there was no environmental impact study done prior to finalizing the construction plans for the tower, which would require adding twelve concrete blocks to the reef with metal rods driven four meters deep.

The concerns include the impact by barges and construction equipment on the reef and biodiversity. In addition to the physical alteration of the reef, they are also particularly worried about the introduction of ciguatera, a toxic algae that poisons fish and is often associated with marine development.

They’ve presented the local government and Paris 2024 with a list of demands. They include using the existing wooden tower instead of the new aluminum one, getting energy from solar power instead of through cables run across the reef, installing dry toilets instead of flush toilets that require pipes that run to land, and reducing the number of people in the tower to 25 by putting all the journalists on a raised platform on land.

When reached for comment, Paris 2024 recognized the opposition movement’s requests, but made it clear that using the previous wooden tower is not an option. “(We) acknowledge the concerns regarding the new judges’ tower for surfing at the Teahupo’o site,” said a Paris 2024 representative via email. “It is important to note that the need to build a new tower is because the existing tower does not comply with the safety standards in force under French Polynesian law. As organisers of the event, we cannot compromise on the safety of the officials and judges who will be working on this tower.
“Our objective from the onset has been to minimize the impact this new tower has on Teahupo’o – an exceptional site which we are committed to preserving, respecting and enhancing in the context of the Games,” they added. “To ensure that the new tower is as sensitive as possible to the local environment, the French Polynesian government in 2022 hired a consultancy specializing in coastal and marine environment protection. To date, the project conforms fully with the consultancy’s recommendations. Sensitive to the concerns of the residents of Teahupo’o and the surfing community about the planned construction of a new judges’ tower, Paris 2024 wishes to involve local associations to study all possible options to improve the current project, within the framework applicable in French Polynesia and to the specifications required for the Olympic Games.”

But both Avvenenti and Pliquet still feel, that at the heart of the problem, is a lack of transparency and consultation from the local community. Pliquet says the locals were blind-sided by the scale of the construction and didn’t realize it until truck loads of sand were seen being removed from the local river at night, presumably to lay the pipes from the land to the tower.  

The local government did, in fact, hold a meeting with the locals when they realized the scale of the opposition, but according to Avvenenti, nothing was accomplished. 

“The president (of Tahiti) was supposed to be at the meeting, but he didn’t come,” explained Avvenenti. “The minister came but he didn’t have the answers. They told a bunch of lies. They said they did the studies, but it was a lie. They were just looking like clowns. It was like they were trying to teach us how the water world works when we were born in it and surfed in it all our lives. We know the whole coast, the whole reef. We fish the outside, the inside. That’s our garden of life, our fridge, our wave, our everything.” 

As Avvenenti awaits a response to the locals’ efforts, up until this point there has been no indication that modifying the construction is an option on the table.

“They have not given us news,” said Avvenenti. “They keep maintaining that they will go through with the tower. The President of Tahiti even said he will be there on the first day of construction. That’s how bad they want to make it happen.”

The Olympic Games are no strangers to facing pushback from local opposition groups. In fact, there are recent examples of such movements successfully altering the Games.

This year in Italy, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest the costs associated with re-building a new bobsled track for the Milan Cortina 2026 Winter Olympics. The organizers eventually decided to move the bobsled, skeleton, and luge events to existing venues either in Austria or Switzerland. 

There are also examples where Games organizers were not phased by public pushback. At the Rio 2016 Olympics demonstrators sought to stop the eviction of residents to make room for Olympic constructions. Yet tens of thousands of residents were still forcibly relocated.

There is precedent for changing plans to the Games, but time is ticking as the event is less than a year away. So, what will happen if the organizers don’t meet the locals’ demands? Is there room for compromise?

Pliquet says it’s too soon to say while their petition is gaining momentum.

“We have contacted Surfrider Foundation Europe and maybe they will take action against Paris 2024,” said Pliquet. “For the moment it’s very difficult to say if our demands can change or not. There are a lot of people against this project, so it would be a good idea to wait for the result of the petition, to properly do an investigation (of environmental impact) with Surfrider Foundation.”

Avvenenti is more vague when it comes to his plans, but certainly not lacking passion.

“They give us no option if they don’t meet our demands,” said Avvenenti. “We are ready to go all the way to protect the land.” 

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated with a comment from Paris, 2024 organizers.


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