[lg policy] Brazilians Speak Portuguese, but the Olympics Must Use French

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Aug 10 13:38:41 EDT 2016

Brazilians Speak Portuguese, but the Olympics Must Use French

9, 2016
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Michaëlle Jean is the secretary general of the International Organization
of la Francophonie. “It’s a struggle each time you have the Olympic Games,
in a different country and a different city,” she said. Credit James Hill
for The New York Times

RIO DE JANEIRO — Michaëlle Jean, secretary general of the International
Organization of la Francophonie, spent a recent morning at the sultry Lagoa
Olympic venue, where the world’s most exciting rowing was taking place. She
was not so interested in what was happening on the water.

“You will notice that the commentators are not speaking French,” she said,
indignantly. “In the venue, none of the signs are in French.”

Monitoring the use of French at the Olympics is a frustrating and quixotic
job, particularly when the Games are being held in a non-French-speaking
country preoccupied with non-French-related matters like street crime,
economic chaos and how to cram thousands of excitable spectators into the
beach volleyball venue. But Rule 23 of the Olympic charter
<https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/olympic_charter_en.pdf> states that
the Games have two official languages, and Ms. Jean’s organization, which
represents 80 Francophone countries, is determined to make sure nobody
forgets that one of them is French (the other is English).

“It’s a struggle each time you have the Olympic Games, in a different
country and a different city,” Ms. Jean said. “We must be there to make
sure the French signs and documents and information are there. We have
3,000 athletes and a lot of people in the public from Francophone

Rule 23 is no accident. As the founder of the modern Olympic Games at the
turn of the 20th century, Pierre de Coubertin got to choose what language
they would be in, and he was French. But as the century wore on, and
English became more dominant as a common international language, French
usage at the Games began to fall by the wayside. This alarmed the
French-speaking world and the Francophonie organization
one of whose goals, it says, is to “combat the perverse effects of
globalization on languages.”

At each Olympics since Athens in 2004, the group has appointed a person
known as le Grand Témoin — the Great Witness — whose job is
to make the case for, and keep track of, French usage at the Games. This
year’s Grand Témoin is the internationally celebrated jazz saxophonist Manu
Dibango of Cameroon. (Ms. Jean, a former governor general of Canada, had
the job in London in 2012.) Responsibilities include negotiating with the
International Olympic Committee and the host country, closely monitoring
the French situation at the Games, and producing a report afterward.

The reports tend to reflect a mixture of hopefulness and dismay.

“In Beijing, all Olympic signage appeared first in French, then English and
Chinese,” the Sochi report says, for instance. “In Sochi, the signage
addressing the international audience was trilingual, but that addressing
the spectators appeared in Russian and English.”
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In addition, it pointed out, “the arrival of some new sports to the Olympic
program (slopestyle and halfpipe) was not accompanied by a terminology
sufficient for these disciplines to be discussed with French terms in the

The Olympics are “obviously a very important showcase,” said Mr. Dibango,
who is also serving as a cultural ambassador, performing with Brazilian and
French-speaking musicians in Rio as a way to promote the international
nature of French.

“I see the job as being the flag-bearer of the 300 million people around
the world who speak French,” Mr. Dibango said.

The average member of the public may have little idea that any of this is
going on, but the Francophonie organization takes the issue so seriously
that no sooner does one Olympics end than it starts negotiating the terms
of the next one. Early discussions about French at the Rio Games were
positive, Ms. Jean said, because the Brazilian government was sympathetic
and because Carlos Nuzman, the president of the Brazilian organizing
committee, speaks fluent French.
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But then the economy collapsed and the friendly government fell. When the
new government came in, it had a lot on its mind, and that did not include
the use of French at the Olympics. As the day of the opening ceremony
approached, the Francophonie organization had no idea how the evening —
traditionally a fine time for the world to hear and appreciate a lot of
beautifully enunciated French spoken by important international officials —
would go.

It turned out to be a runaway success. All the main announcements and
speeches were delivered in French, along with English and Portuguese. Even
better, Ms. Jean said, “everything was announced first in French — did you

The opening ceremony is one thing; the rest of the Olympics is another. Ms.
Jean visited the athletes’ village, only to discover that there were
French-language signs in the cafeteria but nowhere else. She attributed it
to Rio’s budget woes — translation is expensive — and the frantic nature of
pre-Games preparations. While she understood, she said, “We were very
disappointed at the situation.”

Visitors to the Games, too, will see that the thousands of signs at the
various event venues are printed only in English and Portuguese, not in
French. (Not that the English signs are anything to get excited about,
seeming at times to owe more to Google Translate than to a sentient being.
“Press the wheelchair button if you have locomotion issues,” a sign next to
an elevator at the media center reads. )

At the rowing venue on Saturday, the events moved along so quickly that
sometimes it was all the announcers could do to pack in the commentary in
both Portuguese and English, never mind any other languages. In the stands,
several (non-French-speaking) spectators said that, to be honest, language
was not at the forefront of their minds.

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” said Amy Burba, 44, of Virginia. “But I
heard the people behind us speaking French.”

Scott MacRae, a Scottish chef who was holding a beer and wearing his Union
Jack on his head as a form of sun protection, said that except at the
opening and closing ceremonies, French should be kept out of the Olympics.

“I like the French passion,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate
to use French at the Olympics when you have them in a country that is not

Several older-generation rowing officials at the site bemoaned the loss of
French not just at the Olympics but also in sports (and in the world) in
general. Americans in particular, they said, do not speak other languages
and do not really want to.

French used to be the official language of rowing’s governing body, FISA,
but it is now used less frequently, said Jean Christophe Rolland, FISA’s
president. Even FISA, whose acronym stands for Fédération Internationale
des Sociétés d’Aviron, has had to adopt a zippy English co-name, World
Rowing <http://www.worldrowing.com/fisa/>, which it uses for “commercial
purposes” but which is slipping more and more into the rowing lexicon, he

As Mr. Rolland talked nostalgically about the days when rowing meetings
were held in French and English speakers had to listen to the translation
on headphones, the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
began playing over the loudspeakers.

“It’s a daily fight,” he said. “A daily fight.”


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