The opening ceremony of the London Olympics held many surprises, not least the “Queen” parachuting in. But one surprise that had some Londoners scratching their heads was the official announcements being made first in French and only then in English.
At first sight this does seem odd, given this year’s Games are taking place in an English-speaking country. In fact, the International Olympic Committee uses both French and English as its official languages. So all Games feature these two languages as well as a third – the host country’s official language – if necessary.
The use of these two languages as the official languages of a competition will be familiar to anyone who has sat through the Eurovision Song Contest, willing their favourite entry to avoid the dreaded “nul points”.
But why is the French announcement made before the English in an Anglophone country?
Well, it seems because the IOC said so. The committee is, after all, based in Lausanne in Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
What’s more, the founder of the IOC and “father” of the modern Olympics was a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He saw the Games as an embodiment of noble ideals with a role in promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding. In addition, he believed the competition itself, the struggle to overcome opponents, was more important than winning:
L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.
Perhaps English speakers should bear this in mind, and this time be content with second place?
• Jon Wedderburn is an expert on multilingual content for print and online at WorldAccent Translation, London