FOX Sports Exclusive
Few Olympians lost in translation
When David Blatt, an American coaching basketball in Russia, once hired Kestutis Kemzura as an assistant, he let the Lithuanian know what he was getting into.
“I don’t know how much you’re going to learn about basketball,” Kemzura recalled Blatt saying, “but your English will get better.”
That turned out to be quite a bargain for Kemzura. Now the coach of the Lithuanian national team, he eloquently communicated to American reporters Saturday how his tiny Baltic republic nearly upset the United States.
It also was another example of how, with 204 nations represented at the Olympics and a cultural diversity that ranges from Arab women covered in hijab to scantily clad beach volleyball players, many of the athletes and coaches share a common currency besides sports.
They speak English.
Wandering in mix zones, sitting in press conferences or tuning into television, translators are not often needed. Whether it’s cyclists who ply their trade in the Alps, runners who spend the summer racing in Europe or women water-polo players who hold down day jobs in their home countries, many find themselves able to answer questions quite comfortably in English.
“It’s very important,” said Ion Luchianov, a steeplechaser from Moldova, who speaks Russian, Romanian and English. “Humans need to speak, to communicate — for business, to relax, for many, many, many things.”
Such a worldly view is less likely to be found in Americans (or Britons, for that matter), who have a well-earned reputation for cultural insensitivity — be it vacationers taking umbrage that Parisians rarely speak to them in English, or English-as-official-U.S.-language bills, such as the latest one proposed by Iowa Rep. Steve King.
As the world shrinks, being able to communicate — even just a few phrases in certain contexts — might be good for business. But it can be more that that, especially for Americans whose world view too often does not extend beyond their border.
“It’s the biggest sign of respect,” said Kobe Bryant, who spent six years of his childhood in Italy, where his father played basketball. “For me, it’s to have an open-mindedness toward other cultures, being able to learn their customs and way of life and be able to adjust my life according to theirs.
"We, as Americans, really don’t compromise too much. We go into different countries and speak our language. It’s easy for Americans. We want to take the easy way out.”
After a game last week, Bryant bantered back and forth with several reporters in Italian, an exchange he clearly relished, judging from the smile on his face. When he vacations in France, Bryant tries to speak French. When he travels in Spain, he polishes his Spanish.
“I don’t care if I look foolish or sound foolish,” Bryant said. “It’s fun. You’re constantly learning.”
Vincent Collet, who coaches the French basketball team, studied English in college but has made a point to try to improve when he visits French players in the NBA. He watches CNN and reads.
His primary motivation is to be able to communicate better — not just about Xs and Os, but about attitude — with American players, who often are the best players in the French professional league.
And why is that necessary?
“They don’t learn French,” Collet said. “My best player last year (Ricardo Greer) has been there for 10 years and he says ‘Bonjour, comment ca va?’ (Hi, how are you?)
"I said, 'That’s it?' He said, 'yes.' I’m sure if I go somewhere to coach, the first thing to do would be to learn the language, because to communicate is important. It’s the first thing you must do, so that should be the same for them.”
Jukka Keskisalo, a steeplechaser from Finland who leaves Europe to compete in the United States and South Africa, said learning some English — along with Finnish, Swedish and some Russian — has been essential.
“I have a small budget, so I have to do many things by myself,” Keskisalo said. “It’s almost impossible to do if you don’t speak (English). I don’t speak very well, but well enough.”
Conversely, there does not seem to be much financial incentive for Americans to speak another language. Before the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps struck an endorsement deal with Rosetta Stone, the language-learning software program whose ads frequently are placed in the underground stations here. But he does not seem to have picked up much Mandarin.
“I had a client doing a phone interview with l’Equipe,” said Evan Morgenstein, an agent for Olympic athletes, referring to the French sports daily. “He cut it short and calls me back and says I couldn’t understand a thing the guy says. Since none of our deals are in France, we don’t care. But if you’re from another country and one of the best athletes in the world, the reality is you probably work with companies that are based in the United States.”
But for many, the interest and desire in speaking in a non-native tongue is, as Bryant suggested, more about curiosity than commerce. It is about a willingness to see things through someone else’s eyes, to walk in their shoes, to see things on others’ terms.
This, too, is worth something.
“There is an expression,” said Andras Meresz, the bearish coach of the Hungarian women’s water polo team. “The man who can speak more than one language is not just one man, but two or three.”
That proverb resonates at these Olympics.
While some of the dominant storylines of the first week may be the graceful aging of Phelps, the groundbreaking gold of Gabby Douglas, and the farcical machinations of badminton, there have been a collection of ugly American moments.
There was a US swim official wondering aloud whether a 16-year-old Chinese gold-medal-winning swimmer was doping, but no such suspicions surfaced when 15-year-old Katie Ledecky did the same thing. Then there was basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski huffing at a German reporter who had the temerity to ask him about running up the score in an 83-point win over Nigeria. And kicking it off was Mitt Romney questioning Britons’ enthusiasm for the London Games.
Some of these moments might have been avoided with a little more cultural understanding.
If we all, as it were, spoke the same language.
More Stories From Billy Witz