Sustainability as a concept in local sport event policies

Christian Tolstrup Jensen
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

At least prior to the current pandemic, events in physical sports were important places of gatherings for people in every society. To support one’s health, saneness or a relative participating in the event, people would come together to enjoy the collective and experience a sense of belonging. Some events were spontaneous, others were organised by for instance sport organisations, religious organisations or perhaps a commercial entity. For all kinds of organisers however goes that they need a spot for their event. Many events have rich traditions and will never move from their original spot, whereas other, less faithful variations, wander around, settling only for the highest bidder. In short, there is a market for events for those who own open spaces – which in the Nordic countries often is a public entity.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market for events has more or less moved into hibernation, but as the pandemic retreats, the market is likely to re-emerge, raising the question: How does municipalities reconcile a wish for more events while becoming (or being) sustainable? This paper has looked at how the Norwegian municipalities work to solve this problem.

To be precise, the paper is studying the 22 Norwegian municipalities, who in 2020 were covered by an event policy, either their own or as part of a regional cooperation. These municipalities are also among those with the most inhabitants, meaning that approximately 35 peecent of the Norwegians are subjects to these policies and their consequences. Eight of the policies were specific event policies, in seven of the other cases the event policy would be included either in a more general business policy or, as in the final two cases, in the local master plan. In addition, the paper also considers the master plans for all the municipalities to look at how general policies might set some general requirements for the local view on sustainability, which an event policy would have to consider.

To begin with, all the master plans, in some way, had adopted a form of sustainability regime (covering everything from a very explicit commitment to the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an indirect reference to the triple bottom line, i.e. being socially, economically and environmentally sustainable to a mere mentioning of the word). Kristiansand for instance declared that the triple bottom line and the SDGs should be the foundation for every future decision. The SDGs are both “how they [the municipality] want it” and a contribution to the global development. In Trondheim, the politicians were more indirect, simply wanting a “sustainable city,” which “plans for economic, social, and cultural growth considering the needs of today without destroying nature’s future ecological sustainability.” (All references are available in the original paper).

Instead, the policies represent the optimal solution to a local problem at the time of their adoption, i.e., how to combine events with a demand for sustainability.

In the specific polices covering events, these general commitments to the SDGs or a triple bottom line approach rarely showed, regardless of whether we look at the business policies or the event policies. Sandnes Municipality was particularly clear in its view on event sustainability as a business issue, as the policy only touched on sustainability in the section on economy when explaining how well-established events “remain attractive because of their sustainability and continuity”. Sandnes was particularly clear on this, but not alone. In some form such the idea of sustainability as an economic issue was present in all the analysed event policies. However, Halden’s overall aim was to become “nationally recognised for developing and staging sustainable events of a good quality”, showing there was room for another view on sustainability also.

To this account of the paper’s results, it is relevant to add that (albeit based on a very small sample) it seemed that there was a shift taking place since several of newest policies did commit themselves to a sustainability agenda referring to a well-known framework such as the UN’s SDG or the triple bottom line. External inputs seem to play a role in this change. The paper however des not trace this influence in any detail (see below).

The ambiguous results highlight the need to be very specific when discussing sustainability. While this word at least since the publication of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) in 1987 can be understood in a broad, all-encompassing sense, the word as such is much older. The same goes for the Norwegian translation (“berekraft” or “bærekraft”), which originally only had a much more specific meaning as an adjective describing something lasting often in an economic sense as still reflected in Sandnes’ policy for instance.

To understand the reasons for this ambiguity and the potential shift better, the paper discusses the possibility of looking at policy developments as laying a puzzle. Only this policy puzzle, as described by sociologist Christopher Winship, is far from the ones we know from the dinner room table. The policy puzzle’s pieces are in fact exchangeable, some can even be discarded as the final look of the puzzle is not defined beforehand. The puzzle is done when it makes sense to the puzzle makers (politicians, representatives of the sport, environmental organisations and other stakeholders).

From this puzzle perspective follows firstly that none of the policies are “wrong” as such, regardless of whether they conceptualise sustainability narrowly (Sandnes) or broadly (Halden). Instead, the policies represent the optimal solution to a local problem at the time of their adoption, i.e., how to combine events with a demand for sustainability. Secondly, the puzzle perspective emphasises how a policy is not a single bloc but a combination of several puzzle pieces. In the cases where policies did conceptualise “sustainability” in a broad sense, this conceptualisation, for instance, would need a language such as the SDGs from outside of the circle of the decision-makers. To help further change in the future, the decision-makers might need new pieces or that some pieces are taken off the board (for instance by the state, partners providing education, adding resources, regulations, public engagement, or other sources of influence).

To what degree this inspiration is successful and how the municipalities fulfil their commitments are important tasks for future research

Copyright © Christian Tolstrup Jensen 2022

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