Hundreds are set to descend on Tahiti for Olympic surfing. Can locals protect their way of life?

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TEAHUPO’O, French Polynesia — Peva Levy said he felt a powerful, natural energy known as “mana” when he surfed Teahupo’o’s waves on a piece of plywood for the first time, rushing down a crumbling white surf in front of an untouched volcanic beach several years before the steady streams of surfers started arriving when the village got its first asphalt road over fifty years ago.

“It was a secret spot,” the surfer and Tahitian native remembered, as he stood on the pristine beaches of Teahupo’o on the island’s south side, waves crashing off in the distance. “But it was not a secret spot for a long time.”

Teahupo’o has since achieved world renown among surfers — the roaring wave garnered a reputation for its ferocious power — and will be home to the 2024 Paris Olympics surfing competition, scheduled from July 27 to Aug. 4.

The island in French Polynesia is an overseas territory of the European nation. The decision to host part of the Games here has thrust unprecedented challenges onto a small community that has long cherished and strives to protect a way of life more closely connected to wild lands and crystal-clear ocean than the fame promised by an Olympic stage. And while organizers are trying to adjust their plans to conserve the local environment, ensuring that the village of Teahupo’o stays a village is proving to be a struggle for locals.

The original proposed scale of the Olympic site – which called for new roads, housing units and even an aluminum judging tower that required drilling into the reef – caused a significant local backlash. Environmental and surf communities banded together to protect Teahupo’o’s culture, its corals and its marine life.

“It was too much for us, a big change. And it was just for, like, one week” of competition, Levy said, who’s also a member of the local environmental organization Vai Ara O Teahupo’o.

Though it’s known throughout the surfing world, there is not one surf shop in Teahupo’o, with the town forgoing most of the development that’s usually a staple at popular surf destinations. At the end of the village’s road lies its sole snack bar which is only open for lunch and serves fish caught that morning. Kids spend the afternoon surfing as families watch from the black sand beaches. At night, the distant roar of waves barreling down onto the reef lulls the town to sleep.

“We loved this place because it was still wild, there were not many people over here. There was a lot of fish all around, and that good mana,” Levy said.

In response to criticism, now 98% of Olympic housing will be within the homes of locals, with athletes accommodated on a cruise ship anchored nearby. The size of the judging tower has been scaled back and new infrastructure plans are being drawn up to minimize the need for new construction.

But concerns remain: Environmentalists and local fishers fear that drilling into the coral reef could attract ciguatera, a microscopic algae that infects fish and makes people sick if eaten, and many sustain themselves by what they catch in the ocean.

Mormon Maitei, 22, makes a living from spearfishing in the lagoons, feeding his family and selling what he has left over. “The lagoon is our refrigerator, it’s where we get our dinner from,” he said.

The sought-after shape of the waves could be affected, too, islanders say, if the reef were to fissure and lose the shape that the waves rely on to form.

“If it does crack and break off, there will be no more wave over here, it will be finished for us,” said Levy.

In December, local fears were confirmed when a barge razed sections of coral on its way to the construction site on the reef. A video of the damage spread on social media, provoking an outcry.

Cindy Otcenasek, the president of Via Ara o Teahupo’o, called the destruction deeply hurtful. “In Polynesian culture, gods are present everywhere, in the coral, in the ocean,” she said. “The ocean is considered to be the most sacred temple.”

“The fish live around the corals so if we break a coral, we break a home,” she said.

Olympic organizers expressed their concern over the incident.

“It was awful for us,” said Barbara Martins-Nio, a senior event manager for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organization Committee. “Tahitians have this special relationship with nature, with their lands, and it was like a bomb for us.”

Martins-Nio said that their interactions with local groups are now improving, and the organizing team has taken a step back on several issues and are better involving local groups so that construction work is fully transparent.

Despite the fears, some on the island still see the Games as an opportunity. Much of the local population is in favor of the Games, the economic benefits it could bring and the standing it will give their little corner of French Polynesia.

Born and raised in Teahupo’o, Gregory Parker’s morning routine consists of watching the waves crash along the horizon from his beachfront bungalow while smoking a cigarette. But while the Games are in town, he’s willing to sacrifice that for a bit of spare cash by renting it out.

His family owns a significant portion of properties in the village that are regularly rented out to the international surf community during the annual World Surf League competition, and he intends to do the same for the Olympics.

“I will try to live at my daughter’s house during the Games. If she also rents out her house, I have a tent,” Parker said. “It’s not hard for two weeks, and given all the money I will make, it’s worth it.”

In January this year, just months before the Games, a small group of local surfers bobbed up and down in the water, awaiting the perfect wave, when 21-year-old Kauli Vaast, who’s competing in this year’s Olympics, spotted it forming.

He’s quick to slide his board into one of the glassy tubes, gliding out before the wave thunders down onto the reef, a monstrous spray of lapping white froth raining down behind him.

“Magical things happen here, you feel this energy and you must show respect,” said Vaast. “It is so important to show respect in these types of places where you face mother nature.”

Vaast learned how to surf on these waves at just eight years old, nearly 40 years after Peva Levy first felt the wave’s mana. Mana that many islanders feel — and want to preserve.

“We hear a lot about the infrastructure and heritage that will be left by the Olympic Games, but we already have an ancestral heritage,” said Via Ara o Teahupo’o’s Otcenasek. “Teahupo’o is the land of God before being the land of the Games.”

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The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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