After an extra year of waiting, the world’s biggest sporting stage is back. The Olympic Games has long been considered the pinnacle of sports competition, with the first modern edition of the games taking place in 1896, and historical roots stretching all the way back to Ancient Greece.
As we sit back and watch everything from the canoe slalom to rhythmic gymnastics, it would be hard to overlook how sport can bring the country together. But the Olympics isn’t just about that – the games have the power to bring the world together in sport, something that isn’t done that often.
So, how does communication work at the games? With competitors from every corner of the globe, how are language barriers broken down to allow everyone to enjoy the magic of the Olympics?
As we all enjoy the summer of sport, we decided to take a look at how global communication is achieved at the games, and how the universal language of sports brings people together.
Over 10,000 athletes are currently in Tokyo, representing 200 nations in 339 events as part of 41 different sports. Phew!
Team sizes vary, from the 613 Team USA athletes that make it the biggest contingent competing, to the handful of nations who have just two athletes representing them. Team GB have taken their largest ever delegation to the 2020 games, with 376 athletes representing the home nations.
Aside from Team GB, teams from all around the world are competing, including the IOC Refugee Team, bringing with them hundreds of different native tongues, including many minority languages.
Official languages and how they’re used
Despite all the different languages brought into the melting pot of the Olympics, there are three selected as the official languages of the games. They are English, French, and whatever the official language of the host country is (for these games, it is, of course, Japanese).
The International Olympic Committee selects these languages by looking at which languages are spoken most across the countries eligible to take part. So, even though languages like Chinese and Spanish have huge amounts of speakers, they aren’t classified as official Olympic languages as they aren’t as commonly used around the world as French and English.
So, what is the role of an official language at the Olympics?
As well as official announcements, signs, and introductions being given in one of the three, it’s also likely that volunteers will speak at least one of these languages. The opening and closing ceremonies are also performed in French, English and Japanese. Put simply, the official languages offer the best option for as many people as possible to communicate.
However, with such a huge combination of languages and cultures at the Olympics, relying on official languages isn’t enough. This is why a specialised team of interpreters are brought in for every edition of the games, breaking down language barriers and allowing for more easy communication.
For the Tokyo games, there’s a total of 100 interpreters on hand – 40 from Japan, and 60 from elsewhere in the world. They’ll be handling 11 languages, interpreting for the athletes and news conferences in Japanese, English, and French, as well as Spanish, Chinese, German, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Korean, and Portuguese.
This team are no stranger to the sort of high-stakes interpreting needed at the Olympics, having worked with presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs in the past. And, even though we all become armchair experts when watching the sports, these interpreters actually train and prepare so they’re fully equipped with the lingo of each sport and the nuances of the games.
It’s important to remember that interpreting is not the same as translation, which refers only to the written word. Much of the interpreters’ work will come following medal ceremonies, when athletes speak publicly, but their services can also be required to discuss anything from rule-breaking to anti-doping.
Communicating with the world
As we watch our sporting heroes, it can be easy to overlook the work of interpreters that help bring the games to life and countries together. Sport may be a universal language, but we’re grateful for the work of those who make sure no language barrier can affect this!
With a whole load of Tokyo 2020 action still to enjoy, and the promise of the Paris Olympics in just three years’ time (thanks to the pandemic, this’ll be one of the shortest Olympics cycles there has been), we can’t wait to observe the power of sport in uniting us after a particularly tough 18 months. Seeing the community of people from every corner of the world, despite language and cultural barriers, is perhaps one of the best parts of the Olympics.
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