The Role Of French In The Olympics
If you have seen the opening, closing, and medal ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you may have been surprised to hear so much French – even before English was spoken. Although the Olympic games have roots in ancient Greece, the French – and by extension, the French language – had a massive historical impact and role in the organization of the modern Olympics games that we know today. Even so, some fear that the use of the French language in the Olympics has seen a decline in recent times, which has become a major area of concern. But are the fears founded?
The Legacy of Pierre de Coubertin
The first recorded Olympic Games were held at Olympia in 776 BC; the sports festival took place over a millennium before coming to a halt in 393 AD. However, 1,500 years later, a Frenchman by the name of Charles Pierre Fredy de Coubertin, Baron de Coubertin, a sociologist and educator whose interests spanned different aspects of life, education, and history, stepped in to revive the Olympics. Coubertin’s philosophy held that it was important to encourage new athletes and that healthy athletic competition among nations could promote understanding between cultures. In 1894 in a bid to create a better world and to foster peace through sport, he founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This was the birth of the modern-day Olympics. Although a Frenchman born in Paris, Coubertin organized the first edition of the modern games to be held in Athens, the capital of Greece, in a nod to its ancient origins.
Coubertin was also the creator of the five-ring Olympics symbol in 1913, the Olympic Charter (the Constitution of the modern Olympics games), the athlete’s oath, and the functions of the opening and closing ceremonies. Coubertin headed the IOC between 1896 and 1925, died in Geneva, Switzerland in 1937, and according to his wish, was laid to rest in Athens.
The legacy of Coubertin led to French being used as the first official language of the game whilst English served as the second major language. This was to honor the French nobleman for resurrecting and rebranding the ancient event.
The French Language Declining? Not so!
In the 2016 edition of the Olympic games – known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, held in the Brazilian city of Rio De Janeiro –the world watched on as the use of the French language was minimized compared to English, with Brazilian Portuguese the third official language. In fact, since the 2004 Games in Athens, the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (the International Francophone Organization) has sent a representative or overseer called “Grand Témoin” (Great Witness) to every edition of the Games to ensure the strict and active use of the French language as an official language.
During the planning stages of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics games, the use of French was almost relegated, as conferences were held in Japanese and English only. Official games materials were also printed in the same languages. The International Francophone Organization was quick to rise to intervene, as it then signed an agreement with the IOC organizers for Tokyo to make sure that the use of French was in place. In 2019, Secretary-General Louise Mushilawabo addressed the issue saying: “La Francophonie welcomes the Tokyo 2020 commitment to respect the Olympics Charter with regard to official languages, of which French is an integral part. This commitment reflects our shared vision for a world that respects linguistic and cultural diversity“.
The French language presence in the Olympics has been a battle for the International Francophone Organization, which has worked to ensure the legacy of Coubertin is preserved. Michaëlle Jean, former Governor-General of Canada and the 3rd Secretary-General of the International Francophone Organization was the Grand Témoin at the 2012 London Olympics and said that keeping French at the Olympics was “a struggle” at each Olympiad. In the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, famous Cameroonian singer and saxophonist, Manu Dibango, was the official Grand Témoin and said that he wanted to be “the flag-bearer of the 300 million people around the world who speak French”. French chef Thierry Marx was appointed Grand Témoin at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
So, should everything at the Olympics be in French?
Well, technically – yes. According to Article 23 of the Olympic Charter, the Constitution governing the IOC, French and English language are the official languages of the Games. However, and this is noteworthy, in case of a dispute, French takes precedent over English, as it is a tribute to the legacy of founder Pierre de Coubertin. More specifically, “in case of divergence between the French and English texts of the Olympics Charter, and any other IOC documents, the French texts shall prevail unless expressly provided otherwise in writing”.
French Language Back on the Rise
Contrary to popular belief, the French language is on the rise in terms of speakers, as the 6th most spoken language in the world after Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic. French is the official language of 29 countries in the world, with Africa largely contributing to that number since it alone has 25 francophone countries. Worldwide, between 250 and 300 million people are estimated to be French speakers, including nearly 77 million native speakers. In Quebec, French speakers account for nearly 30% of the population of Canada. In Europe, apart from France, 40% of Belgium‘s population is francophone. Approximately 20% of the population of Switzerland speaks French, which is also an official language of Luxembourg and Monaco. Some even project that by 2050, the number of French speakers will double or triple due to the increase in the population of the sub-Saharan part of Africa. This could, rather incredibly, keep French as one of the world’s most spoken languages.
Paris 2024: Historic
It is music to the ears of the International Francophone Organization that after so many years of chasing the future of French as the official language of the modern Olympics, the Games will be coming to the shores of its founding father when Paris becomes the host city of the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad less than 3 years from now. This is seen as a remarkable event, as many will seize this opportunity to celebrate and remember the legacy of Coubertin and reemphasize the role of French in the Games while ensuring its proper historical place of importance. “Paris 2024 is a unique opportunity, let us say even historic, to put the French language back in the spotlight within the Olympic movement,” said Ivan Coste-Manière, vice-president of the Francophone Association of Olympic Academies. “This opportunity should not be missed, otherwise, everything will be lost”, he concluded.
At Chang-Castillo and Associates (CCA), we know languages – especially French, as both its founders and co-owners speak and interpret it, and have Olympic experience. Let us show you why we are considered the platinum standard of the translation and interpretation industry.
Contact us online today or give us a call at +1 (877) 708-0005!