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A fan stands on the Olympic Rings in Rio De Janeiro. French, an official language of the Olympics, has been increasingly absent from these Olympics.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Olympic announcer at the beach volleyball court in Copacabana one recent day was shouting a rousing play-by-play as Russia and the Netherlands faced off on the sand. "Wow! Smackdown!" he cried in English. "Russia jumps into the lead!"

Just outside the venue, seated at a beachside restaurant within earshot of the roaring volleyball fans, representatives from the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie were somewhat more subdued about the action. Like other competitions they had toured in Rio, this one was missing French.

"The problem is what you hear. There is no French during the competitions," said Audrey Delacroix, an official with the group.

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The Francophonie, a Paris-based organization whose ranks include Canada, Quebec and New Brunswick, is present at these Games as a sort of guardian of history and the French language. Its mission in Rio is daunting. While French remains one of two official languages of the modern Olympic movement, a legacy of founder Pierre de Coubertin, you would be hard-pressed to know it if you toured the Olympic Park or watched the competitions.

Veterans of the Games say French has been gradually disappearing from the Olympics, reaching the point of near invisibility under the Brazilian sun. The phenomenon is captured from the reports of Quebec journalists at the Games. Where is French in Rio? asked a headline in the Journal de Montréal. The French language "sacrificed" in Rio, La Presse said.

Former Canadian governor-general Michaëlle Jean, secretary-general of La Francophonie, had been working with Brazil since 2012 to ensure French would have its place at South America's first Games, but after several days in Rio earlier this month she found the reality on the ground "disappointing."

French was spoken at the opening ceremonies by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who is German, and announcements before the medal ceremonies are made in French. However, the language linked to the birth of the Games is absent during competitions, and signs across the Olympic venues are in Portuguese first and English second.

"At the sites, French is often forgotten in the commentaries," Jean told the sports website FrancsJeux. "In terms of signage, it is very haphazard."

To be fair, day-to-day communication in any language other than Portuguese, the language of Brazil, can be an iffy proposition at the Rio Olympics. Signs that might help visitors find their way across vast expanses of concrete walkways at the Olympic Park are non-existent when you desperately need them. The Brazilian volunteers on hand are charming and eager to help. Frequently, however, they can't speak English (or French).

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Delacroix recognized that French signage isn't a top priority in a country dealing with a collapsing economy, political turmoil, the Zika virus and security threats. As she discussed the challenges of French, a troop of khaki-uniformed soldiers rumbled by in an army truck on Avenida Atlantica, the seaside artery bordering Copacabana.

Yet the Olympic charter is clear – Rule 23 says "the official languages of the International Olympic Committee are French and English."

To see how it's done, the Francophonie designates an observer to the Games known as the "Grand Témoin" (Great Witness), a title that is suitably serious considering that members of France's venerable Académie française are known as "immortals."

This year's Great Witness is Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, who is also promoting French-language culture during his visit. He notes that there are 3,000 athletes from francophone countries at Rio. The Francophonie's powers remain limited to persuasion, however.

"We are not here to be gendarmes," the 82-year-old musical star said at the restaurant by the volleyball courts, before being asked to pose for selfies by fans who recognized him.

Like his predecessors, Dibango will write up a report once the Games are over. Jean, who was the Great Witness at the London Games, didn't pull her punches, lamenting that London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe didn't speak French at the opening ceremonies, as he'd promised her. She said she also had the "unpleasant surprise" to see the words "Olympic Park" in English only.

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Yet, Games veterans say Rio appears to be setting a record as a French-free zone compared with its predecessors, and it may simply reflect the larger struggle of French against the global juggernaut of the English language.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, French dominated at the Games. Now, there is nothing at all," said Alain Lunzenfichter, a retired French journalist who is in Rio at his 24th Olympics. "If it continues, French will disappear and there will only be one language at the Olympics."

Lunzenfichter, honorary president of a world association of Olympic journalists, noted that English has become the de facto language of communication at the IOC, even among French-speaking members, a sign of "the rise in power of Anglo-Saxon countries" at the Olympic body.

"We shouldn't be surprised we're being submerged by English, and we can't imagine that the Olympic Games are like a territory where every four years you have to speak French," he said. "French is in decline. Only France and Quebec are defending French."

Olympic athletes from Quebec, meanwhile, say they are used to the multilingual environment of international competition. "I'd be proud to see more French at the Games. I'm Québécois and French is my language and my identity," said Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard, a 22-year-old from suburban Montreal who competed in judo.

Still, coming to Rio, language wasn't top of mind. Her judo referee, for one, spoke Japanese. And she didn't notice the language of the signs around the athletes' village. "Eating, training, resting and preparing for my competition was what mattered," she said. "I'm at the Olympics."

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