There are 204 countries represented at this year’s Olympics, and who knows how many languages these countries bring with them. Yet every official announcement and every official printed item having to do with the Olympics is in French, usually followed by English. It’s maddening.
The reason is that the modern Olympics were the result of the efforts of a French man named Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He started the International Olympic Committee in 1894, the first games were held in 1896, and when the Charter was drafted in 1908 not only was it drafted in French, it specified that French would always be the primary language of the games.
Tradition has served to stop any reform effort to date.
The Olympics, after all, are an event rooted in the distant past. It does not like change.
Does This Tradition Still Have Relevance Today?
French as the dominant language made some sense in 1894, when French was still the language of diplomacy and French culture was in some ways at a global apex. If nothing else the French were in possession of a bona-fide empire back in the Belle Epoque, but I’m not sure it makes any sense today.
French cultural influence has declined along with French territorial holdings while other cultures and languages have risen in importance. English would make more sense – a fact the organizers must know, since they usually follow the French announcements with English translations. The main language of the Host Country is also then usually included as a third option.
I think the official language of the Olympics should be reconsidered every ten or twenty years. In today’s world, English would be the obvious choice, as it is a language at least partially understood around the world.
In twenty years, perhaps another language will have supplanted it. Mandarin? Maybe. Spanish, more likely. Or maybe not – English has become the unofficial language of so many aspects of the world, from technology to pop culture, it may be insurmountable.
Whatever the future brings, the Olympics Games are supposed to bring countries together in a spirit of honest competition and friendship. Imposing a century-old language rule kind of undermines that goal.
Obviously, we can’t have announcements in dozens of languages, and like any other state or organization the Olympics needs an official language to work in. Change starts at the top, though, and I think the first step is probably to make membership on the International Olympic Committee a term instead of a lifetime appointment. Get some fresh blood in there. Maybe some folks who don’t think French is the most important language in the world. What do we say? Who’s with me?