Why is English the de facto language of the Olympics?
August 15, 2004 8:06 PM   Subscribe

OlympicFilter: Why is everything in English? [more inside]

While it is certainly nice from an American (and Canadian, British, Australian, etc) perspective, I fail to understand why (nearly) everything at the Olympics is in English. The host country is Greece, yet nothing seems to be in Greek, and even on the uniforms of the different countries, everything printed on them is in English. Why, for example, does it not say "China" on the Chinese uniform in Chinese?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood to Society & Culture (22 answers total)
Marketing. Who has enough money to buy the goods advertized on the television during Olympic events? English speakers.
posted by pwb503 at 8:24 PM on August 15, 2004

Well, they say they print materials in 6 languages: English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but i'm sure English is the agreed-upon common language for events. Don't they also always use the host country's language for announcing during events, along with English?
posted by amberglow at 8:29 PM on August 15, 2004

I believe English and French are the official working languages of the International Olympic Committee.

I could be mistaken, but is English the international trade language? If not, the language of diplomacy? Perhaps the breadth of the British empire in the previous centuries and our own global domination in commerce, science, etc are root causes of the prevalence, or perhaps constant presence, of English in world culture. All possibilities, but I can't say any of them are actually the single reason.

The signs when the countries were entering on the opening ceremonies were in Greek, the native country's language, and English. I think I also recall during the last olympic hockey, the countries used their own language on jerseys and such (Suomi on the Finnish team, etc.) Overall it seems like a pretty mixed bag.
posted by tetsuo at 8:34 PM on August 15, 2004

I don't know, as I sit here in Mexico looking for English Olympic's all I find is Spanish.
posted by mss at 9:34 PM on August 15, 2004

Broken English is the lingua franca of our time.

It's simply the world's most widely-used and understood language, I'm guessing. (F'r instance, English is the international language of air traffic control communications.)

(tetsuo, I always thought French is the language of diplomacy, but that's just a hunch.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:07 PM on August 15, 2004

French is used at the Olympics because the modern games were founded by Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin.
posted by zadcat at 10:20 PM on August 15, 2004

I thought French was considered the "international language" and was used chiefly in international events? Whenever you hear announcements they're usually in english, then french.

Still, I agree with Steve here, why aren't the uniforms for each team in their native tongue?
posted by mathowie at 10:30 PM on August 15, 2004

I forgot to mention: I've been to world cup matches and I've seen swedes show up in outfits with their proper country name on them (sverige), but I just watched women's volleyball and I swear the japanese and chinese uniforms had the english abbreviations for their countries. That just seems dumb to me. We don't expect americans to wear outfits that say "amerigo" (or whatever "america" translated to other languages is) on them whenever they compete internationally, do we?
posted by mathowie at 10:35 PM on August 15, 2004

French used to be the international language, but English began gaining on it, and has since overtaken. So now both are used in international settings, which makes sense if you think about the legacies of colonialization. The UN also uses English & French as its main languages (to work there you have to speak one of those & another language).
posted by dame at 10:50 PM on August 15, 2004

Response by poster: I always thought French is the language of diplomacy

I was under the same impression.

We don't expect americans to wear outfits that say "amerigo" (or whatever "america" translated to other languages is) on them whenever they compete internationally, do we?

Matt, I guess you focused more on really what was my question. If I was watching the Olympics or another international event, I guess I would be a bit bothered if Team USA's jerseys were in another language. More so, almost all of the jerseys have the flag of the country on them, so it is not as if I could not tell who the Japanese team was even though I don't read Japanese.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 11:27 PM on August 15, 2004

The countries did enter the Opening Ceremony [pdf] in Greek Alphabetical order, not sure if this is done at other games.
posted by ALongDecember at 11:46 PM on August 15, 2004

Off topic language question: any idea why the abbrevation for the United States in Spanish is EEUU? I know it means "Estados Unidos" but why the duplication?
posted by ALongDecember at 11:49 PM on August 15, 2004

The country so nice, they named it twice?!
posted by davidmsc at 11:54 PM on August 15, 2004

posted by vacapinta at 11:58 PM on August 15, 2004

France used to be considered the language of diplomacy, but that's a dead letter these days outside of France itself.

English is far more world wide in its distribution than all other spoken languages. It is an official language in 52 countries as well as many small colonies and territories. In addition, 1/4 to 1/3 of the people in the world understand and speak English to some degree. It has become the most useful language to learn for international travel and is now the de facto language of diplomacy. In 2001, the 189 member countries in the United Nations were asked what language they wish to use for communication with embassies from other countries. More than 120 chose English, 40 selected French, and 20 wanted to use Spanish. Those who wanted English to be the common language included all of the former Soviet republics, Viet Nam, and most of the Arab world. English is also the dominant language in electronic communication.

Indeed, the French language's historically founded position at the Olympics is so precarious, that France's ambassador to Greece sought assurances that the Greek Olympic committee would continue to promote it. They did the same in Sydney. But the position of French continues to deteriorate; many recent Olympics have used the local language and English alone for most announcements, signage, and the like. Ultimately, it's a cost/benefit issue. It costs a lot of money to do bilingual, and there just aren't that many people coming to the Games (as athletes or fans) who speak French but not English.

ALD: the opening ceremonies, indeed, are traditionally handled with the countries entering in the order of their name in the host country language. The exceptions are Greece, which always enters first, and the host country, which enters last. (This time, they had a ceremonial contingent first, and the Greek team last.)

As for using French announcements, there's no rule. It is probably common in IOC-connected sporting events, but most organizations come up with their own list of official languages, depending on history and need. It's probably also common for languages using non-English alphabets (or ideographic languages like Chinese and Japanese) to simply use the English name instead.

The real question right now is whether English should be the official language of the EU, rather than the 11-and-counting babel currently (and expensively) supported.
posted by dhartung at 1:18 AM on August 16, 2004

Thanks for the info. Two straight Summer Olympics in English confuses things a bit. And thanks vacapinta for linking, it all makes sense now. Sorry for asking a question in a question, is that proper protocol? See, there I go again.
posted by ALongDecember at 1:27 AM on August 16, 2004

Pretty much all of the opening ceremony was in Greek, then French, then English.

All of the signage denoting country names was in Greek, too.
posted by toby\flat2 at 5:13 AM on August 16, 2004

why aren't the uniforms for each team in their native tongue?

Sometimes they are. During the winter Olympics, the Russian hockey team wears uniforms with Cyrillic lettering. (After a quick search, here's a picture from 1998 showing it.) And the Soviet Union always wore "CCCP" rather than "USSR". I expect that it's up to each individual country.
posted by Zonker at 5:14 AM on August 16, 2004

Ah, here's a better look at the Russian jersey from Nagano '98. I can't find the Salt Lake City version at the moment, but I'm pretty sure the lettering was the same.
posted by Zonker at 5:18 AM on August 16, 2004

zonker, along the same lines, in past Olympics East Germany was noted as "DDR" (Deutsche Demokratische Republik).
posted by pardonyou? at 6:52 AM on August 16, 2004

China's outfits says "China" because they wanted it that way. The official language of the Olympics has nothing to do with uniform design.
posted by smackfu at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2004

Along with the French-used-to-be-the-language-of-diplomacy idea, I note that US passports are written in French as well as English. I believe most other countries' passports are written in French as well as their own languages.

What do Francophone countries have on their passports? Any second languages?
posted by Vidiot at 9:19 AM on August 16, 2004

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