TOKYO – The French language has been almost invisible during the drawn-out preparations for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
News conferences in Tokyo are conducted in Japanese or in English — or with English interpretation. Signs around the organizing committee offices are in Japanese and English. Printed material is largely in Japanese and English.
French is seldom seen or heard.
The L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, known also as The Francophonie, signed an agreement with organizers on Thursday that it hopes might change things. The body represents countries and regions where French is used, or the culture is represented.
“La Francophonie welcomes the Tokyo 2020 commitment to respect the Olympic Charter with regard to official languages, of which French is an integral part,” Louise Mushikiwabo, the secretary general of the organization, said in a statement.
Le Francophonie even has an overseer called the Grand Temoin — the Great Witness — to monitor French use.
Organizers said the agreement was designed to encourage the use of French “through the establishment of an official Tokyo 2020 website in French, and the promotion of French culture.”
Article 23 of the Olympic Charter specifies that French and English are the official languages of the games. In fact, the charter suggests French has standing over English.
This is the legacy of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics.
“In the case of divergence between the French and English texts of the Olympic Charter and any other IOC document, the French text shall prevail unless expressly provided otherwise in writing,” the document says.
The reality is different.
French usage has been slipping in recent Olympics. It seemed to have disappeared altogether three years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Signage in French was nowhere. And to be fair, the organizing committee could barely afford to put up signs in the local Portuguese, or English — much less French.
In a statement to the Associated Press, the Canadian Olympic Committee declined to evaluate “the organizing committee’s use of the official IOC languages.”
“We can confirm that all communication at the Games from the Canadian Olympic Committee will be available and conducted in Canada’s official languages: French and English.”
French is the predominant language of Quebec, the Canadian province that makes up almost one-quarter of the country’s population.
Interpretation for athletes and for news conference during the Tokyo Olympics will be in Japanese, English, French, and eight other languages: Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese.
The opening ceremony and closing ceremony will be in French, English and Japanese, as will most announcements at venues.
But signs are unlikely to appear in French, and few Olympic volunteers are likely to speak French.
The good news for French is that the trend is likely to change when Paris holds the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Denis Masseglia, the head of the French Olympic Committee, told AP he was “not aware of any problem whatsoever” with Tokyo.
“For us, it looks like these Games won’t be different than the others,” he said.
Which means, not a lot of French.
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.