River Seine may finally see real progress in a major cleanup as the 2024 Olympics approach, making outdoor swim races a possibility for the first time there in over a century.

River Seine, in its course through Paris, is one of the most famous, painted, and photographed rivers in the world. But for decades, it’s been a river largely in name only. Corralled between limestone walls, too polluted for fish and swimmers alike, it’s been treated shamefully. For a century, most of it is off-limits for any use other than a waterway, for public safety.

But the 2024 summer Olympics are going to be held in Paris, and all eyes will turn to the City of Light to watch hundreds of athletes swim for gold. And city officials are using the hype and excitement to push for a decades-old goal that has languished for funding and enthusiasm – a total clean-up of the urban river.

$1.5 billion are earmarked for the project, which really began in 2008 when France began cracking down on boats and homes along the Seine which emptied wastewater directly into the river. The money will help build catchment basins and settlement ponds to improve the standards of wastewater and stormwater treatment. The bottom, currently a tangle of a century’s worth of discarded bikes and trash, will be dredged clean. Species of native fish and plants will be reintroduced to barren stretches.

And come the Olympics, if this project is successful, the opening ceremonies will be held on the banks of River Seine herself, and athletes will compete in the river’s newly clean water.

“It will create waves, so to speak, across the world because a lot of cities are watching Paris,” says Dan Angelescu, a scientist who is tracking the Seine’s water quality for City Hall, with regular sampling.

“It’s the beginning of a movement,” he says. “We hope so, at least.”

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