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June 24, 2015

At the Olympics, languages compete for gold as well.

by brenton

The Queen’s English took a backseat at the Olympics in London

Visitors to London’s 2012 Olympics may have noticed that at the opening ceremony all the main speeches were in French. So, too, were the medal awards. There was no need for language translation services, though, because everything was repeated in English. According to a BBC News Magazine piece:

“Today, both English and French are official languages of the Olympics. At ceremonies French is spoken first, then English, then the language of the host nation…”

A few complained

Some Brits viewed the arrangement – i.e., English taking a secondary position to French – as buckling under the pressure from the International Olympic Committee as well as a distasteful form of “French Imperialism.”   A December 2010 article in London’s “Daily Telegraph” cited “thousands of pages of detailed demands” as the IOC’s conditions for hosting the 2012 games.

The language issue topped the list of complaints that included relegating the British flag to fifth in precedence beneath the Olympic, London 2012 symbol, UN and Greek national flags at the Olympic stadium. The “Telegraph” described the IOC’s demands as “draconian,” but there is ample precedent for the dominance of the French language at the Olympics:

  • Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman, founded the IOC in 1894.
  • The 1908 Olympic Charter specified that French would be the first language, followed by English and the language of the hosting country.
  • The IOC held its first meeting in Paris. Its current headquarters is in a French-speaking part of Switzerland.

In addition to the logic that French should be the governing language of the IOC, there’s also the fact that the language is widely spoken throughout 36 countries with an estimate of over 275 million people whose first language is French.

French and English in the United Nations

Meanwhile at the UN, French and English have slipped somewhat in their statures of being the dominant languages of that world body. Originally designated as “working languages” – having the status as the primary means of written and spoken communication – English and French now share that status with Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. However, the UN’s International Criminal Court still uses English and French as its working languages.

Other international organizations

NATO still has English and French as its working languages. The European Commission, which gave Europe its euro currency, uses French, English and German.

The World Trade Organization, the International Telecommunications Union and several other international trade organizations use English, French and Spanish. Finally, the African Union now uses Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

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