On Monday, along with millions of others, I watched, horrified and helpless, as the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, the second or third-most iconic structure in the city that will host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, burnt.
In some ways, the harrowing Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks were worse; the great fire appears to have run its course without loss of life; there seems no reason to anticipate the crippling aftermath of fear and mistrust that terrorism engenders.
But when a building is so well-known and inspirational in intent, its devastation feels like a bereavement.
I first ventured into the great Gothic church on the Seine before most of my colleagues at insidethegames were born.
I took snapshots of the magnificent stained-glass windows in the days when you would then carefully unspool and extract the roll of film from the back of your camera prior to – get this, kids – sending it away to some distant darkroom for development and printing.
I pursued doomed love affairs among the pigeons in the square in front of those massive bell towers.
Many people will feel the same sort of personal connection to a structure that, like all such monuments, has become much more than a place of worship.
So, what now, as the stupendous oaken interior stops smouldering?
Well, for one thing, the disaster may provide embattled French President Emmanuel Macron with an opportunity, for a time, to conjure a much-needed sense of national unity, a respite from the gilets jaunes.
Notre-Dame is a symbol of Paris but also of French Catholicism which nowadays finds sustenance chiefly in la France profonde, away from the secular or, as some would see it, godless capital.
It is already clear that most of what has been lost to the flames will rise again.
But this week’s inferno, slap bang in the historical heart of the city, will change Paris 2024 in significant ways.
This is, after all, an Olympic project in which, we have been told, “the city’s greatest sites will be placed at the service of the Games and the Olympic brand”.
Moreover: “The Games concept is linked together by the River Seine” – a geographic feature without which the city would not exist, and which literally surrounds Ile de la Cité, the cathedral’s island location.
Without the conflagration, Notre-Dame would have provided a breathtaking but reassuringly familiar symbol of the permanence of the city and the majesty of French/European civilisation, in full view of the lenses of the world’s all-powerful TV producers telling the story of the 2024 Olympic Marathons and no doubt many other events.
Now, while the French President has stated he wants renovation completed within five years, the cathedral will spend most of the intervening period as the world’s most famous construction site, a powerful reminder of the fragility of even the grandest and most awe-inspiring of human designs.
And, if Macron gets his way, by Games-time what it signifies will have changed again, with the edifice transformed into a symbol of rebirth, of craftsmanship at its most painstaking and wondrous and of international cooperation.
In the meantime, Paris, not for the first time in recent years, our heart goes out to you.
I am far from alone, I know, in questioning why the Olympic Movement, supposedly obsessed with enhancing its appeal to the young touch-screen warriors of the online generation, chose to reintegrate golf, restoring it to the sports programme at Rio 2016 after a break of more than a century.
But, boy, if anything is going to prompt me to reassess, it would be a repetition of the sort of climax dished up last Sunday in Georgia, as Tiger Woods landed his fifth Masters title.
For a few spellbinding minutes after the ball of poor Francesco Molinari, the long-time leader, had dribbled back into Rae’s Creek, it seemed all of a sudden as though any one of about 15 men, including one who had already completed his round, might potentially win.
Then a calm Woods took command, to complete the most dumbfounding sporting comeback since the Rumble in the Jungle.
A couple of points though:
- The venue had a lot to do with delivering the drama.
That 12th hole, the shortest on the Augusta National course, Molinari’s nemesis, is a work of subtle yet sadistic genius.
At just 155 yards, it is short enough to invite thoughts of a hole in one; yet a combination of swirling winds and an extensive, mesmerising water hazard makes it a place where the wheels can come off even the most confident, hitherto rock-solid closing rounds.
Meanwhile, the standard format of a four-round Major tends to mean that, if the leaders do hit trouble there, the closest of the chasing pack will be negotiating holes 13 to 15, where birdies and indeed eagles are more plentiful than almost anywhere else on this beguilingly beautiful course.
Exciting finishes, in other words, are not by accident there.
It is a pity – maybe – that golf was not on the Olympic programme in 1996 when Augusta National might well have emerged as the venue.
- I noticed that Woods’s victory immediately prompted a certain amount of comeback banter among sports fans on social media.
“If Tiger can win the Masters, Andy Murray can win Wimbledon,” that sort of thing.
There were even one or two athletics dudes wondering, it seemed only half jokingly, if Usain Bolt might hit the comeback trail.
It doesn’t normally do to take such chit-chat too seriously.
On this occasion, though, I do think it highlights a serious point.
This is that sport seems to be finding it difficult to manufacture new superstars at the moment.
Certainly, in the 11 years since his last Major Championship, golf has not come close to replacing Woods, though Rory McIlroy looked at one time as if he might eventually do so.
The next Bolt and the next Michael Phelps seem for now equally elusive.
Even football appears to be encountering difficulty filling the starting-to-age boots of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Women’s sport is perhaps in slightly better shape in this regard, with the emergence of Rio 2016 star Simone Biles and, maybe, Naomi Osaka.
One can posit all sorts of reasons that might be contributing to the supply-line drying up: the wholly uncompromising, remorseless focus over many years usually necessary to win nowadays; too much media coaching; poor governance within sports bodies; over-intrusive, sometimes abusive social media…
What is sure is that sport can ill afford for this drought to be extended.
Woods’s latest green jacket might well lead to an uptick in golf’s fortunes this year.
But at 43, he can only offer a relatively short-term tonic.