Although the 2021 Olympic Games have concluded, the spirit of unity across nations and peoples lingers on. For centuries, the Olympic games have been an opportunity for people across the world to showcase not only their physical aptitude in competition but cross-cultural connections as well. However, these gatherings of people across nations and continents pose a significant hurdle in terms of communication across languages. Read on for 5 fun facts about language at the Olympics and strategies that have worked to break down communication barriers!
1. English and French are the Official Olympic Languages
The official languages of the Olympics are English and French. Although the original Olympic Games were held in Greece two thousand years ago, the modern Olympic games were revived by a Frenchman: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Upon re-establishing the Olympics, de Coubertin wrote French language requirements into the Olympic charter.
That said, every Olympics also adds the host country’s language (or languages) to the list of official languages. For the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona, there were four official languages: English, French, Spanish, and Catalan.
2. Delegations Enter in Alphabetical Order
Each nation enters in the alphabetical order of the host nation except for Greece and the host country; Greece always enters first to honor the birthplace of the original games. The host nation always enters last. When Greece hosted the Olympics in 2004, their flag entered first and their delegation of athletes entered last.
At the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, delegations entered according to kana, a writing system of syllables used in Japanese. Japanese kana consists of over 40 syllabic sounds and begins with vowels, followed by consonants. This is why countries like the United States and Ukraine entered earlier in the parade than they would in English-speaking host nations.
3. Role of Translators and Multilinguists
Bilinguals and polyglots are in high demand for the Olympic Games! Translators arrive to the games a month before opening ceremonies to translate signs in the Olympic village, menus, city transit systems, and more for athletes. Many of the translators speak upwards of six languages or more! When gathered together, these polyglots often will switch from one language to another depending on the subject they’re discussing.
4. Pictograms Have Broken Language Barriers
Graphic communications have worked as an instant and necessary way to transcend language barriers at the modern Olympic Games. Beginning in 1964, the Games have deployed pictograms as a means of communicating across cultural and language barriers to instantly notify fans, athletes, and coaches of each sport. Host nations have since employed designers to create graphics depicting sport in a simple, effective way while also reflecting the nation’s culture and history. Compare the initial pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to 2004 Athens, below. The Greek pictograms are reminiscent of black-figure vases from ancient times.
5. The Olympic Motto
The International Olympic Committee changed their motto this year from “Higher, Faster, Stronger” to “Higher, Faster, Stronger – Together” to recognize the ability of sport to unify people of different backgrounds and to emphasize solidarity. The motto will be shown in future Olympics in English and translated into French as “Plus haut, Plus vite, Plus fort – Ensemble” and Latin as “Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter.” Each Olympic Games also has its own motto; the specific motto for the Tokyo games this year was “United by Emotion.”
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