When London 2012 kicks off in less than two weeks, the first official words heard will be in French. Throughout the Games, all announcements, medal ceremonies, as well as all “billboards and pageantry” around the city, will see French take precedence over English.
As far back as 2010, sections of the British press were baulking at this ‘French imperialism’, with The Telegraph declaring it “draconian”. In its rush to stir up old rivalries however, the paper seemed to conveniently forget that this tradition has been observed at every Olympics for the last century. So why should 2012 be treated any differently?
The Olympics are as much about history, tradition, culture and ceremony as they are about sport. In the same way the Greek flag is flown before the host nation flag in recognition of its part in originating the ancient Games, the French language’s prominence reflects the part it played in establishing the modern Games.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee), the organisation behind the modern Olympics, was founded by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. The first modern Games were held two years later in 1896, and the Olympic Charter, which set out that French would be the prominent language, was first drawn up in 1908.
The Olympic Games has two official languages, French and English. Depending on where the tournament is being held, the official language of the host nation may also be used as a third language. But French has always been the Olympics’ first tongue.
As the man most responsible for the first modern Games, Coubertin surely had the right to make his own language the prominent one. The initial meeting of the IOC that set in motion plans for the first modern Games was also held in Paris, and the organisation is now based in a French-speaking part of Switzerland, making French the logical language to use.
History and tradition aside, there are very good linguistic reasons for having French as the first language of London 2012.
French is the official language of 29 countries, and it is commonly spoken in a further seven. It is spoken across six continents and it is estimated that as many as 275 million people around the world have French as their first or second language.
And this is set to grow. With 96.2 million Africans currently speaking French and rising birth rates, the OIF (l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) estimates that there could be 700 million French speakers in the world by 2050.
London already has the honour of being the first city to host the modern Olympics three times. Surely that’s enough patriotic pride for us Brits to be getting on with, we don’t need to make our language first too.
The Telegraph, London 2012 Olympics to be held in French, December 2010
Olympic.org, The Organisation
RFI English, French language growing, especially in Africa, March 2010