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The Language of the Olympics

By Katherine at Accredited Language
Posted on Friday, February 19, 2010
Category: Interpreting, Interpreting, Languages, Languages, Sports

Whenever viewers tune in to the Olympic Games, they’re probably use to hearing more than one language spoken by the athletes, coaches, spectators and news correspondents.

But what is the official language of the Olympics?

As it turns out, the Olympics has two official languages: French and English.

The Modern Olympics

Many know that the first Olympics were held in Ancient Greece. But fewer people know that the Olympics as we know them now were revived in the late 19th century in France by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a historian and teacher.

De Coubertin was responsible for establishing the International Olympic Committee and planning the first sets of games, the 1896 Olympics in Athens, Greece and the 1900 Olympics in de Coubertin’s hometown of Paris, France. Because French was considered the language of diplomacy at this time, (and likely because of de Coubertin’s nationality) French became the first official language of the Olympics.

To this day, the International Olympic Committee presides over the Olympics, and their official charter states that French and English are its official languages. What’s more, all sessions of the IOC provide simultaneous interpreting services to accommodate speakers of French, English, German, Spanish and Russian.

2014 Olympics: Russian Police to Speak 3 Languages

For the 2014 Sochi Olympics, more than 40,000 police officers underwent intensive training in English, French and German. The goal was to facilitate easier communication between Russian law enforcement and the spectators at the games.

And just in case spectators and police still had trouble communicating, there was a 24-hour hotline where multilingual volunteers offered telephonic interpreting services.

2010 Olympics: Not Enough French?

In 2010, the Winter Olympics were hosted in Canada, where English and French are also the official languages. But some officials made allegations that the 2010 Winter Olympics didn’t feature enough emphasis on the French language — or any other language besides English.

Many French Canadians protested the dominant use of the English language in the 2010 Olympics, particularly in the opening ceremony.

Leaders like Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff spoke out regarding the lack of the French language in the Olympics. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore told Canada’s CBC News, “I thought the opening ceremonies were brilliant, beautiful, spectacular on television, but there should have been more French. Period. Full stop.”

More Olympic Languages

All announcements made during the Olympics are made in either two or three languages: French, English and then the official language of the host country.

Despite only having two official languages, the Olympics are broadcast all over the world, with local commentators providing recaps and insights in many different languages. In fact, in 2020, Japan hopes to use machine interpreting during the Olympics.

Though he was French, Baron Pierre de Coubertin was more interested in the gathering of countries for an honorable competition than he was with language barriers. The motto he chose for the Olympics was “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” a Latin phrase meaning “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.”

De Coubertin also believed in the Olympics as a method of promoting peace among the competing countries and that the goal of the games was not to win, but to do your best among your peers, which he summed up best in a statement that is often repeated in both the French and English languages during the Olympics:

L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

One Response to “The Language of the Olympics”

  1. Is English the Lingua Franca of International Sports? | Language News Says:

    […] for spectators and tourists. In preparation for the Sochi Olympics in 2014, more than 40,000 Russian police officers received intensive training in English, French and […]

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