I love the Olympics. I love the pomp and circumstance, the glitz and glamour, the thrill of victory and even the agony of defeat. As an armchair traveler who has yet to be able to travel to the Olympics firsthand, I look forward to learning about the host country and the athletes’ countries through the Olympic games. The Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony and learning about the culture and languages of the host country is one of my favorite events. This year I began to consider the role of language.
For those of you who watched the Olympics, did you happen to consider how, with 2,850 athletes from 87 countries represented, does everyone communicate? How do athletes know where and when to show up to the events? How is it possible to do this smoothly in such a short time frame?
Further, how are the millions of visitors from all over the world able to understand what is going on? Clearly, how does everyone find their way through the airports, to the Olympic Villages, participate in the opening and closing ceremonies, and conduct press conferences which are broadcast worldwide.
What about the volunteers? The press? Emergency responders such as the police? What about the billions watching worldwide? In what languages do they communicate? Is language a barrier? Or, is the diversity of language the thread that actually connects us all together?
So important is the role of language, The International Olympics Committee (IOC) hosted a forum entitled Sochi 2014: Translation Issues. The Committee met to plan ahead to make sure the Olympics does not become a language competition, where athletes who know certain languages have greater opportunities.
Fun Facts (sochi2014.com/en/news)
- The Olympics official languages are French and English, plus the host country language if is not French or English. The head office is based in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Incidentally, Switzerland has four national languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh.)
- Every announcement such as the naming of each country during the parade of nations or for events is spoken in the three languages. International Olympic (Olympic Charter 2007, p. 53, Rule 24)
- The press room will be represented by 70 different countries.
- Press room conferences (18 a day on the busiest days) will be available in eight languages – - Russian, English, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
The Russian Olympic Committee prepared for athletes, press & visitors (SAJAN)
- Referees, judges and taxi drivers have been prepared to speak these languages, focusing primarily on English.
- All Olympic volunteers are required to demonstrate an upper-intermediate command of English.
- At least 300 doctors have studied up on English specifically to work at the Olympics.
- More than 40,000 law enforcement officials will be able to converse with guests in the three official languages.
Athletes are comfortable working in bilingual, often trilingual language environments competing and training in multicultural and multilingual spaces
Athletes routinely travel to other countries, train in other countries, and are coached by speakers who might not speak their home language (sochi2014.com/en/athlete)
- Michael Christian Martinez (figure skater) is from the Philippines. He speaks Filipino and English. His coaches are from Great Britain and Russia.
- Patrick Chan (figure skater) is a native from Ottawa. He speaks three languages and is the son of immigrant parents from Hong Kong.
- Iason Abramshvili (downhill) is from Georgia. He speaks English, Georgian, Russian.
What does this mean for language and culture?
Clearly, the Olympic Committee recognizes that the ability for the athletes, visitors and viewers to fully participate in the Olympic experience they need to create a linguistically and culturally friendly environment. The ability for all to communicate is a priority. By recognizing that language is a key factor, they created a welcoming environment for all participants. They reduced language stress so athletes can concentrate on the competition, interpreters and translators are in place so language is not an issue, visuals are used as supports, directions and the task to be performed a clear. Athletes have language access and are able to compete athletically. Language is not a barrier, rather a partner. The diversity of languages and culture are the threads which create a rich tapestry for the Olympic games.
International Olympic Committee (2007). “Olympic Charter” (PDF). International Olympic Committee.