Even in London, French is mandatory at the Olympics
If you’ve been watching the official ceremonies at this year’s Olympic Games in London, some of the announcements might have surprised you.
"Why are they repeating every sentence in French?,” you may have wondered. "The Games are in London, not in Paris!"
You would not be alone. Few people know that French is, along with English, an official language of the Olympic Games. As Rule 24 of the Olympic Charter stipulates, “The official languages of the International Olympic Committee are French and English.” Theoretically, every sign, announcement and official document of the Olympics should be available both in English and French.
- Rule 24 of the Olympic Charter stipulates, “The official languages of the International Olympic Committee are French and English.”
At the origin of this rule is the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman considered by many as the founder of the modern Olympic Games. Born in 1863, Coubertin believed that "Organized sport can create moral and social strength."1 He was deeply inspired by ancient Greece and the importance of physical education in Greek civilization, and advocated creating an international forum for sports, which would promote peace between peoples.
- Baron Pierre de Coubertin
Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 23, 1894. The first Summer Olympic Games took place two years later in Athens, Greece, with French as one of the official languages of the event. To Coubertin, this was a way to promote openness and dialogue, notably by guaranteeing linguistic and cultural diversity.
Since then, however, the equal use of French and English during the Olympics has not always been strictly observed. In order to ensure that Rule 24 is respected, the Secretary General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the pre-eminent body of the French-speaking world which includes 75 states and governments, appoints a special representative during each edition of the Olympics to ensure that French is effectively used.
For this year’s games in London, the "grand témoin de la Francophonie," or the Francophone world’s "Grand Witness," is Michaëlle Jean, UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti and former Governor General of Canada.
"We are not here as policemen, we’re here in a spirit of partnership," she told French radio station RTL.
Seventy-two delegations are representing French-speaking countries at the Olympic Games this year, and many journalists are on the ground there, updating the world’s 220 million French speakers on the Olympic tradition that Baron Coubertin first began.
1 Pierre de Coubertin, L’Education en Angleterre (1888).