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English, French ? and German ? at Utah Olympics

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Come February in Salt Lake City, a select few Olympic athletes will hear descriptions of their events in English, French . . . and German.

It's the first time ever, inside a French- or English-speaking country, that a third language will be used to describe Olympic competition ? an unusual exception to a once-unbreakable International Olympic Committee rule.

"English and French are the official languages of the IOC and the Games," explained USA Luge spokesman Jon Lundin. But, he added, "luge is certainly a German sport."

All Olympic sliding sports ? luge, bobsled and skeleton ? have German roots.

With that heritage in mind, Craig Lehto, Utah Olympic Park director, doggedly pestered the IOC to include German descriptions at the park, which is home to all three Olympic sliding sports.

"That was hard," he said of the deal. "It was tough to convince them we should have German."

Throughout the years French and English have been the only languages used in Olympic competition. In years when the host country speaks a language other than English or French ? as when the Games were in Nagano, Japan, or Barcelona ? then that country's language is also used in official competition.

Not that Olympic organizers besides Lehto hadn't tried to break the English/French-only mandate.

In 1996, Atlanta's organizers pleaded with the IOC to allow Spanish to be spoken along with English and French. Organizers there argued that the city's large Hispanic community warranted the use of Spanish; however, the IOC refused to be swayed.

Lehto and crew, it seems, proved more persuasive and eventually won approval to include German descriptions of the competitions at Utah Olympic Park.

And the addition should be welcome, if not for spectators then certainly for competitors.

In luge, for instance, the top three sleds in last year's men's, women's and doubles World Cup luge are all owned by German-speaking athletes. And since it became an Olympic sport in 1964, of the 30 luge gold medals awarded, 29 have gone to German-speakers.

And while the dominance of German speakers is less pronounced in bobsled and skeleton, Germanic competitors are among the most prominent in those events, both in the past and present.

E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com