Why is French the official language of the Olympics, even when it's hosted in Beijing?

Here's Why Officials Speak French So Often At The Olympics

There’s a very specific reason for this tradition.

by Jenn Rose and Claire Fox
Originally Published: 

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games are almost officially underway in Beijing, China, and those who get up early to watch the parade of nations will be treated to quite the spectacle as always, with each host nation outdoing the last. But if you're not a regular viewer, you might be confused about why the officials are speaking French at the opening ceremony rather than Chinese. After all, this year’s games take place in China’s capital city. And why do they speak French at the Olympics so much in general?

When you think about it, it makes more logical sense that the official language of the Olympic Games be Greek — after all, the Olympics got their start in ancient Greece — but that’s not the case. When the modern Olympic Games kicked off in 1896 in Athens, Greece, there was a wide variety of languages being spoken among the different participating countries. Today, there are even more. In terms of the most widely spoken languages in the world, English and Mandarin Chinese take the top spots. French, though it is a widely spoken language, doesn’t come close to the same number of speakers worldwide.

Given that, why is French the official language of the Olympics?

Why French Is Spoken At The Olympics

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The reason for the official language choice is due to French being the native tongue of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee. As it turns out, Rule 23 of the Olympic charter establishes two official languages for the games: French and English. Essentially what this rule means is that all signs, paperwork, announcements, and the like are to be in both French and English, and if there should be any disagreement between the two versions, "the French text shall prevail," as the charter states. Additionally, the third language of each Olympics is the host nation’s language.

Other languages are expected to be spoken at the games, of course, especially if neither French or English is the official language of the host country. But translation must be provided into French and English, as well as German, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, according to the Olympic charter. That may seem a bit tiresome, but when you've got millions of people from about a hundred countries all descending on one city for a couple of weeks, it helps to cover your bases.

Languages At The Beijing 2022 Olympics

It's a curious mix of languages at the Olympics, especially when you consider the host nation having to follow the Olympic charter and have everything be understandable in their own language. For example, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, all Olympic signage appeared first in French, then English and Chinese. The same will happen at the 2022 Winter Olympics, but even more comprehensive.

Back in 2021, the Foreign Affairs Office of the Beijing Municipal Government announced a special action plan to improve the international language environment for Beijing Winter Games. The plan included the standardization of foreign-language signs and the foreign language service ability in the city, among other steps. The languages included in this plan for the Winter Olympics are: Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Russian, German, and Spanish, according to the Chinese News Service.

If all this talk about language at the Olympics is getting you excited, make sure to tune in to the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing on Friday, February 4, which will take place at Beijing’s National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. Along with the impressive spectacle the host country of China will surely bring to the table — the 2008 Summer Olympics there really made an impact — you’ll be able to watch the parade of nations.

Notable Team USA athletes to keep an eye out for in the crowd (if they choose to walk) include snowboarding legend Shaun White returning for his fifth and final Winter Games, reigning snowboarding gold medalist Chloe Kim, skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, figure skating powerhouse Nathan Chen, and so many more. In total, the U.S. is bringing 222 athletes to Beijing, with a record number of 107 women as part of the country’s contingent. Let the games begin!

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