The Official Language of the Olympics – Here’s a Hint: It’s Not Greek

You’re watching the Olympic games and events, and you notice that the information and announcements are presented in three languages. While you’re waiting to hear the event results in your language, you wonder – if the Olympics are Greek in origin, why is the official language French? And why is French always the first language, no matter where the Olympics are held?

It all traces back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. Interested in uniting the world in friendship and peace through sport, he envisioned a revival and remodeling of the ancient Olympic Games and worked hard to make it happen, starting with the first modern games, which took place in Athens in 1896.

Official language of the olympicsThe IOC Language Rule

Rule 23 of the IOC Olympic Charter addresses the languages of the Olympics:

  1. The official languages are French and English.
  2. Simultaneous interpretation must be provided in those languages at all sessions; other languages may be interpreted as well.
  3. If there is a discrepancy between the French and English texts of any IOC document, the French text will take precedence unless noted otherwise in writing.

The Three Languages of the Olympic Games

French: The first official language of Olympic events, French was Pierre de Coubertin’s native language. Perhaps more importantly, it was considered the language of diplomacy when the IOC was established. The IOC has also been headquartered in the French-speaking Lausanne, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, since 1915. These factors add up to French being the first official language. In this case, first means that French takes priority over other languages used in Olympic announcements or communications.

In addition to establishing French as the first official language of the Olympics, the IOC partners with the International Francophone Organization (IFO) to promote the French language. To do so, the IFO sends a French language ambassador to every winter and summer Olympic session. The ambassador makes sure that the translations and interpretations are of high quality and promotes the French language and culture, even going so far as to endorse the French language in the local schools.

English: English was made the second official language due to its commonality and popularity. One explanation is that the official languages of the Olympics are determined by the number of countries that speak the language – English is the official language of at least 59 sovereign entities. English falls second in the order of announcements.

Host Language: The third language spoken at Olympic events is the language of the host country, unless that host country speaks French or English. In that case, only two languages are spoken in announcements.


More Fun Facts About the Olympics

The ABCs of Parade Order - If you’ve ever wondered about the seemingly random order of the nations entering the opening ceremonies, rest assured, it is in fact organized. While it may not seem like it, the countries enter in alphabetical order. The difference is that the alphabetical order follows the host country’s alphabet.

The only countries that do not follow that order are Greece, given the honor of first entry due to the origins of the Olympics, and the host nation, who always enters last.

The Four Year Interval - Ever wonder why the Olympics are held on a four-year schedule? It goes back to the ancient Olympic Games. The ancient games were held every four years at Olympia. The ancient Greeks used that four-year interval to measure time; they counted the passage of time in Olympiads instead of years.

The Five Rings - The Olympic rings are well known, but what do they represent? The five interlaced rings and their colors are symbolic, but the colored rings don’t each represent a specific country.

Instead, the interlocking rings themselves represent the union of the five continents where participant countries are located. The five colors – blue, yellow, black, green, and red – plus the white background, represent the colors of the flags of all nations as of 1913, when the symbol was created. The colors and rings are intended to symbolize how athletes from around the world meet at the Olympics.

A Vision to Connect People Around the World

The vision of the IOC is to build a better world through sport; to this end athletes from around the world are invited to compete as well as build friendships and connections with other athletes from around the world. Finding common ground among the many languages spoken while honoring the language and culture of the host country takes planning, thoughtfulness, and skill.

Here at Rapport International we have a similar mission and vision:

  • MISSION: To unite people across languages and cultures.
  • VISION: Connecting people for a peaceful and prosperous world.

We use the same type of planning, thoughtfulness, and skill as the IOC to provide language services for your business or institution to help you connect with your audience, no matter the language. When you need a partner to help you communicate, give us a call.


Rapport International specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We use the right voice and the correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. With our 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can trust that it’s done right. Contact us today if you would like more information or to get a free quote.

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Categories: Inclusion, Culture & Diversity, Updates & Fun


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