Tahiti Surfing Venue for 2024 Olympics Will Damage Coral Reef, Residents and Surfers Say

JEROME BROUILLET/Getty Images

With the Paris Olympics just around the corner, France is at the center of controversy. In the village of Teahupo’o in Tahiti, construction has begun on a metallic tower designed to house judges during surfing events, despite the fact that it’s already destroyed precious coral life. This comes as no surprise to Pasifika [Pacific Islander] people who are all too familiar with the European nation’s history of destruction and colonization throughout our communities.

To most of the world, the French are synonymous with style, romance, and the language of love. Millions travel from all over to visit iconic landmarks like L’Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. To experience these is to be considered “cultured.”

Let’s talk about this “culture.” The Arch de Triomphe celebrates and honors a tyrannical dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, the Louvre is constantly under fire for housing stolen artifacts from Africa and Asia, and the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of patriotism for what we know to be an imperialist power. This is France’s true legacy. This is further reflected in comments made by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, who wrote that sport and colonialism were “natural companions.” He called sports "a vigorous instrument of the disciplining" of colonized people, and viewed it as a calming force in the French colonial empire.

Tahiti became but one of France’s colonial conquests in the Pacific during the 1800s (there’s also New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and the now independent Vanuatu) due to its strategic location for military bases and its natural resources. The abundance of pearls were of particular interest given they were highly prized across Europe and Asia, and so began the exploitation of the island group through pearl farms, quickly becoming Tahiti’s main source of income.

At this time, Ma’ohi (indigenous Tahitians) were made to work under inhumane conditions, where they were forced to dive until their ears ached, noses bled and brain damage was caused. Many suffered and even died from disease and exhaustion.

When you combine this harm with the introduction of missionaries, where Christianity took the place of Ma’ohi traditions and values, ultimately separating people from their spirituality and source of wholeness and healing, the French left the population in disrepair.

Their wreckage continued into the 20th century. While the US undertook nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s and devastated Pasifika peoples in Micronesia, France followed suit in French Polynesia during the 1960s and 1970s. The Mururoa Files, an investigation led by Princeton research, revealed that the French downplayed contamination on Tahiti by as much as 40%, leading to significant reports of qualifying test victims contracting at least one form of cancer.

Fast-forward to 2024 and France is once again neglecting the well being of Ma’ohi in service of its own wants. Instead of using the 20 year long-standing wooden judges tower that’s already established on the reef, Olympic organizers greenlit an almost $5m state of the art aluminum structure to replace it.

Local surfers pushed back with the support of The International Surfing Association (ISA), the governing body for Olympic surfing, citing it would cause irreversible harm to the coral. This proved to be true when in December, a barge used by workers damaged coral at the site. It sparked outrage and an online petition with over 200,000 signatures protesting the project. Things came to a brief halt.

Ma’ohi pro surfer Lorenzo Avvenenti told The Guardian: “I saw their motors just blasting the coral reef and breaking everything, and breaking their propeller at the same time. That was the biggest destruction of the reef I’ve seen in my life. Especially in a sacred place like Teahupo’o, which is so raw and so untouched.” Fellow Ma’ohi pro surfer, Matahi Drollet has also been vocal, using social media to raise awareness. “The impact and the risk are too important for only three days of contest.”

Tahitians understand the impact this will have on the overall marine ecosystem and the waves themselves. Alternatives have been proposed like building on top of the wooden foundation or judging from the beach, utilizing cameras on boats and drone technology. All have been rejected.

As of right now, the official website reads:

The decision to stage the surfing competitions at Teahupo’o tallies with Paris 2024’s ambition to spread the Games across France.

Tahiti is NOT France.

It offers an opportunity to engage French overseas territories and their communities in the Olympic Games – for the first time in history – while showcasing France’s rich and diverse heritage.

The only aspects of France’s “rich heritage” being showcased are empire and oppression.

It is a dream spot for many leading surfers, and some of them – including Kelly Slater – have been lucky enough to conquer it.

Kelly Slater spoke out against the tower.

The competition venue has been designed to protect the island’s extraordinary natural surroundings. The event will not affect the coastline because the waves break offshore.

This is just not true.

Changes have been made to the plan but it’s not good enough for residents. Unfortunately, they’ve run out of legal options and the building is expected to be completed by May 13 in time for a World Surf League (WSL) event which will act as a test run for the Olympics.

For a long time, the Olympic Games have come under fire for the erasure of indigenous peoples (while appropriating indigenous cultures) and upholding colonial practices that often end up worsening social conditions for those most marginalized. France’s irreverent actions in Tahiti come as no surprise to Ma’ohi who have preserved a strong sense of identity and self against all odds. But what will it take for the world to finally hold these offenders accountable? These celebrations should never come at the expense of our people and the lands and seas we hold dear to us.

Stay up-to-date with the politics team. Sign up for the Teen Vogue Take

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue


Want more Teen Vogue climate coverage?