Locals Worried about Olympic Surfing Event in Tahiti

04 March 2024

The Summer Olympic Games this year are in Paris, France.

Paris does not have an ocean. So, how do organizers plan to present competition in the sport of surfing?

They are taking that Olympic event halfway around the world to the South Pacific country of French Polynesia. The athletes will compete on the island of Tahiti, in a small coastal village called Teahupo'o. The area is rural. It did not even have a road until the 1970s.

Tahitian-born surfer Kauli Vaast rides a wave in Teahupo'o, Tahiti, French Polynesia, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
Tahitian-born surfer Kauli Vaast rides a wave in Teahupo'o, Tahiti, French Polynesia, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Hundreds of people are expected to visit Teahupo'o to watch the sport, as the surfers go out onto the famous waves from July 27 to August 4.

Peva Levy is a Tahitian surfer. He said the Teahupo'o beach was a "secret spot" when he first rode the waves there more than fifty years ago. But, he added, it did not stay secret. Teahupo'o gained fame among surfers around the world in the years since.

Levy said the place has a special energy, a feeling known as "mana" in the local language.

And the people who live there want that special quality protected. There are concerns that a week of Olympic competition in Teahupo'o could destroy the "mana" and harm the environment that surrounds it.

Proposed preparations for the event included building temporary housing, roads, and even a large structure out on the water. The work called for drilling into a coral reef. Opposition to the plans quickly grew.

Environmentalists, locals and surfers joined forces to protect Teahupo'o's culture, its corals and other sea life.

"It was too much for us, a big change," said Levy, who also serves on a local environmental organization Vai Ara o Teahupo'o.

The group told the Olympic organizers they did not want new buildings or roads. And organizers are adjusting their plans as a result.

For example, they will not be building any Olympic housing. Instead, athletes will stay on a nearby boat. Homes of locals will serve other Olympic housing needs.

Organizers also shrunk the size of the planned structure, a platform, they will build in the ocean. Judges will watch the competition from the platform.

Some people worry that the drilling into the reef will disrupt the ecosystem and attract a dangerous algae. If fish eat the algae, people who eat the fish can become sick.

Twenty-two-year-old Mormon Maitei is concerned about the fish in the area. Maitei is a spearfisher who catches fish to feed his family. He sells what they do not need. The water is "where we get our dinner," he said.

Tahitians also worry that changing the reef could also change the shape of the famous waves.

Levy said if the reef cracks and breaks off "there will be no more wave over here, it will be finished for us."

In December, the worries of the locals were confirmed when a boat working on some Olympic construction hit a piece of the reef and broke it.

Cindy Otcenasek, the president of Via Ara o Teahupo'o, called the destruction deeply hurtful.

She said in Polynesian culture, people believe gods and spirits are everywhere, "in the coral, in the ocean. The ocean is considered to be our most sacred temple," she said.

Otcenasek said the fish live in and around the corals, "so if we break a coral, we break a home."

Barbara Martins-Nio is a senior event manager for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organization Committee. She called the accident "awful." She said Tahitians have a "special relationship with nature ... and it was like a bomb for us."

Since the incident, Martins-Nio said, the relationship between the organizers and locals has improved. The Olympic group is moving slowly and asking for more input from the local groups.

I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

coral reef –n. a long section of material formed on the bottom of the sea by the skeletons of small creatures that is home to sea life and living coral

drill –v. to make a hole in something with a powerful tool

algae –n. a kind plant life that grows in water

awful –adj. something very bad or upsetting