On 12 February 2010, Vancouver staged the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. It was a magnificent show, but the Quebec premier, Jean Charest, said that everyone would have liked to hear more French in the ceremony. Being the mother tongue of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of modern Olympic Games, French has a special place as the first official language of the movement.

The French content at the opening ceremony consisted of bilingual announcements and practically little else. There was a performance by Garou, the immensely popular singer from French-speaking Quebec. For the rest, it was English that dominated the ceremony.

File photo of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, waving the Olympic flag during the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Beijing, China. Bloomberg

The French-English divide was not a product of Vancouver Olympics. In Beijing 2008 too, there were voices of discontent. Chinese, the language of the host country, was recognized as the third official language. From the moment the mayor of Beijing addressed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in English and presented his city’s claim to conduct the Games, there was a surge of interest in learning English. The Chinese called it yngwen re, or English fever.

In the Beijing Games, the place of Chinese was clearly defined, but the choice between French and English was difficult. To counteract the appeal of English as the language of success and of opportunity, a campaign known as “French, the language of the Olympics" was launched, with the support of the French ministries of foreign affairs, culture and sports. It aimed at restoring French to its rightful place as the first language of the Olympics. The International Organisation of La Francophonie, representing 68 countries, lent its full support to the movement.

The campaigners wanted French to be a tangible presence throughout the capital for the duration of the Games. All official releases were to be translated into French. Official speeches at the opening and closing ceremonies were to be displayed on giant screens in French. But no solution was reached, and the debate was carried to Vancouver.

Now that the London Games are near, Francophiles have realized that French has been given only a ceremonial place, as the titular first language of the Games. IOC has, therefore, taken pre-emptive measures this time to make sure that French is in word and deed the first official language. Without mincing words, IOC has announced that French will have precedence over English in all ceremonies including the award of medals. Billboards in both French and English should be put up across the city. In all announcements, the English versions should be read after the French.

The clauses of the “host city contract", which the media could obtain under the Freedom of Information Act, spell out clearly the legally binding conditions to be met by the host.

The main demands stand out. The Queen will attend a ceremony planned by IOC just before the opening of the Games. The British flag will fly fifth in the stadium after the Olympic flag, the London 2012 symbol, the UN flag and the flag of Greece. The host will provide 700 dedicated cars with chauffeurs and 40,000 hotel rooms, of which 1,800 will be four-star or five-star.

To prevent ambush marketing, the city must gain control of all public advertising. Spectators should not wear clothes with commercial messages. Olympic officials must have draconian powers to enter private homes and seize unauthorized material. As transport resources will be stretched to the maximum during the Games, the city must enforce “behaviour modification" on people on the move.

If the tone of the demands is anything to go by, it may not be easy for English to maintain its primacy at the Games.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

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