International Olympic Committee

Voice of the Games doesn't sound sweet to English ears

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:11pm

The 1,000-year cross-Channel rivalry between Britain and France continues here. It would be unsportsmanlike to gloat but the forlorn French, with a modest eight golds, are miserable. So they are accusing Team GB's cyclists of skulduggery because they are hiding the 'magic wheels' that have propelled the likes of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Jason Kenny to glory.

Of course, it comes as no surprise to learn our Gallic cousins have been sulking over their frothy coffee and baguettes. Cycling, the French national sport - a Lycra-clad obsession, to be precise - has been wholly and gleefully claimed by the British over the past two weeks. Bradley Wiggins' historic Tour de France triumph was merely the opening salvo.

The Anglo-French Olympic rivalry affected these Games long before the opening ceremony, however. London and Paris were joint favourites to win the bid to host the 2012 Games, and according to International Olympic Committee rules, all bidding cities had to refrain from criticism of their competitors. Outwardly, London and Paris were the epitome of good conduct ahead of the July 2005 announcement. But during the last and crucial evaluation visit by IOC officials to Paris in February of that year, London claimed France was breaking the rules by deploying police outriders to accompany the VIP inspectors' convoy.

And more suspicious sideways glances are aimed at our neighbour whenever the official language of the Olympic movement blares out across the stadium PA systems - French. This is causing great British consternation. A slew of prickly letters and emails have been dispatched to the newspapers, expressing outrage and demands for things to be put right.

Many a Brit, cocking an ear during the long opening ceremony speeches, the pre-race preambles and medal announcements, has been left in a state of bewilderment and asking why French is the first lingo of the Olympics. Why not English, the world's lingua franca, they implore? Patriots at the Academie Francaise, the legal guardian of the French language based on the banks of the Seine, are keeping quiet - perfectly happy to keep this small Olympic oasis of French influence going. After all, French was once the international language of diplomacy until Britannia ruled the lingo waves. The Academie joyously applauds the proud 'Mesdames et Messieurs' announcements ringing out across venues in Britain. They have spent much of the past 50 years defending French culture from what they consider the most insidious threat - the English language - so this is something of a coup.

French is the first Olympic language not because - as many assume - the IOC is headquartered in the French-speaking Swiss city of Lausanne. It is to honour Frenchman Baron de Coubertin, who developed the modern Olympics in the 1890s. The great educationalist and historian founded the IOC and is hailed as the father of the modern Olympics, also known as 'the greatest show on earth'.

The baron, a French aristocrat who made frequent visits to the Britain, discovered kindred spirits in Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School who believed that physical exercise - sport - was a positive complement to classroom teachings. Crucially, Coubertin was heavily influenced and inspired by Dr William Penny Brookes, a country physician who believed athletic competition and exercise was a way to prevent illness among the British working class.

In 1850, Brookes started a local athletic meet in a farmer's field - next to a windmill - at Much Wenlock, Shropshire. He called what became an annual sports event, 'Meetings of the Olympic Class'. He moved the event to different villages, towns and cities around the county. Brookes teamed up with the Liverpool Athletics Club, which was running its own Olympic Festival in the 1860 and together they formed the British National Olympian Association. They held their first Olympics at Crystal Palace and planned to move the event around the country and internationalise the spectacle.

But the British establishment feared the common doctor and the lower classes were taking over sport and influencing the working class too much. So the aristocracy started the Amateur Athletics Association, which drew up rules and started to organise sport, something Brookes applauded; the rich had all the money to invest, after all.

Seeking a revival of the international event staged by the Ancients, Brookes reached out to the birthplace of the Olympics, Athens. He opened communications with Greek government officials and sporting advocates. But his ambitions to stage a world Games came to nothing.

On seeing Brookes' mini Olympic Games at Much Wenlock, Coubertin made copious notes. The determined Frenchman took Brookes' idea and format to the next level and founded the IOC. He set about organising the 1896 Games, the first of the modern era. The rest is history.

'The DNA of the modern Games was laid down in Much Wenlock by Brookes. Coubertin was a great man but he was standing on the shoulders of a giant,' said Helen Cromarty of the Wenlock Olympian Society.

'Brookes based his ideas on the Ancient Greeks, who welcomed intentional competitors from surrounding countries and islands such as Albania and Crete. Speaking Greek was the only rule to joining the Games,' said Cromarty, who is writing a biography of Brookes.

Why then, given Brookes' and Much Wenlock's pivotal role in reviving the Olympics, is English not the official language of the Games?

'Personally speaking, Greek should be the first language of the Olympic movement, followed by English,' said Cromarty from her study. 'We do not celebrate the Greeks at all, apart from Greece leading out the nations during the opening ceremony. We should at least have a welcome speech read in Greek. Without the Ancients, we would not have the Olympics.'

There is more bad news for the French. It turns out those 'magic wheels' so closely guarded by the gloating Brits, were made - quelle horreur! - in France.