Norwegian book tackles the difficult questions surrounding sustainability in sports

Daniel Svensson
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Dag Vidar Hanstad, Morten Renslo Sandvik & Anna-Maria Strittmatter
Idrett og bærekraft: Perspektiver på miljø- og samfunnsansvar i idrettens organisasjoner [Sport and Sustainability: Perspectives on Environmental and Societal Responsibilities in Sport Organizations]
193 sidor, hft., ill
Bergen: Fagbokforlaget 2021
ISBN 978-82-450-3709-8
Norway has played a special role in the rise of environmentalism. It was the Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland who led the work with the milestone 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, and played a pivotal role in the work to establish the Agenda 21 framework. Less known is perhaps the role that Brundtland played in the world of sports.

In 1988, Brundtland travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to address the IOC members and convince them to award the 1994 Winter Olympic Games to Lillehammer. In her talk, she argued for an “ethics of solidarity” in sports, which would build on sustainable development and environmental awareness (p. 23-25). The IOC listened and the games were awarded to Lillehammer.

This hitherto rather underreported episode can be seen as a starting point for environmental awareness in sport. However, it can also be used to problematize how sustainable development is used by sport organizations and other actors. While Lillehammer is widely recognized as one of the more sustainable Olympic Games in modern times, it was sponsored by the Norwegian state-owned oil company Statoil (p. 25).

Despite the relatively long history of promoting sustainable development in sport, it is not until the last decade that Norwegian sport organizations on all levels have begun to work more ambitiously with environmental issues. As many within sports now find themselves facing issues relating to sustainable development on a daily basis, the need for knowledge on the topic have become more acute. This book is, according to the authors, an answer to “a demand that was suddenly there” (p. 11).

While offering a general introduction to sustainable development, this book is primarily aimed at connecting sustainability and sports in a Norwegian context. The authors are all researchers at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and represent different disciplines and research interests, though they share an interest in management and organizations. Dag Vidar Hanstad is professor in sport management, Morten Renslo Sandvik is a researcher with focus on environmental politics and green transformation in sport organizations, and Anna-Maria Strittmatter is associate professor in sport management. From the outset, this looks like a strong line-up with potential to address the sport sustainability issue in all its complexity.

As one of the most influential countries in the formulation of sustainable development, and as one of the world’s leading (and richest) sporting nations, Norway has the potential to address these issues at all levels.

The book is intended for use within higher education, as well as for the sports sector. It is written in Norwegian, which in practice decides its reach to Scandinavia. This is in some ways a limitation, while also enabling the authors to engage in more detailed discussions and choose cases which would have required further contextualization for an international readership.

Hanstad, Sandvik and Strittmatter start off with a chapter on the concepts sustainability (bærekraft) and sustainable development (bærekraftig utvikling). They use these concepts and the SDGs throughout the book as a tool for sports to work with these issues, but they also offer a critical analysis of how goals can conflict with each other. The risk of greenwashing is discussed throughout the book.

In chapter two, the authors turn their focus to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They also introduce the research-based wedding cake model. Both frameworks are then critically analyzed.

The following three chapters deal with three aspects of sustainable development – environmental, social and economic. Chapter three introduces several concepts and problems relating to environmental sustainability in sports, such as land use, equipment, arenas, and travel. There is an interesting example of something called short-travel sport (kortreist idrett, p. 85) which serves to illustrate how reducing travel impacts from sport needs to negotiate with other considerations.

Chapter four deals with social sustainability, and the authors show how sport organizations in Norway have vast experience of working with social issues such as gender equality, good governance and inclusion. However, when these issues are addressed as separate entities, outside of the everyday business of sport, things are less likely to change in any profound and meaningful way (p. 106-108). Could this be valid also in relation to environmental sustainability?

In chapter five, economic sustainability is the main topic. The authors introduce concepts such as triple bottom line and circular economy and discuss examples of how economy can enable or prevent sustainable development. A case in point is the alternative table for the English Premier League, where teams are ranked according to their performance in sustainability. For 2020, Manchester City was 3rd and Chelsea 6th (p. 120-121). This highlights how a narrow definition of sustainability can blur the bigger picture and the negative impact of fossil-fuelled sports-washing projects on global sustainability (not least obvious during the recent weeks when Chelsea have been faced with the consequences of their dependence on Russian money). Norway may not have the same problems with dubious foreign investors, but what about sponsorships from unsustainable businesses?

The sixth and final chapter turns its attention to practical sustainability work in sport organizations. The authors present eight cases from all levels of Norwegian sports and offer concrete guidelines and identify opportunities as well as potential problems. For a non-Norwegian reader, these cases also provide insight into the everyday work in Norwegian sport.

A positive feature is the inclusion of learning objectives, discussion questions and additional resources (via QR code) with each chapter. This underlines that the book is aimed for higher education and as such is a welcome Scandinavian addition to a field which has so far been dominated by North American and British scholars (e.g. McCullough & Kellison 2018). The downside is that some theoretical dimensions and discussions are not fully elaborated, such as ecomodernism, climate change and the Norwegian economy’s dependence on fossil fuels. I also miss a broader problematization of other values in sport, and how they affect the potential to work with sustainable development. Much of the developments in sport during the last 150 years have been aimed at growth in terms of performance, economy, and participation. The clash between such logics and the idea of sustainable sport could have been discussed a bit more. Concepts and theories such as sportification (e.g. Guttmann 1978) and the green waves of environmental sustainability in sport (McCullough et al. 2016) could also have been fruitful to use. In general, the authors focus heavily on organizations and less on logics, ideas and technologies. But I shall not go further in this impersonation of reviewer 2, saying that this is not the book I would have written. Instead, I think it is a good sign that Norway now has a book that explicitly addresses sport sustainability. With its pedagogic approach and strong connection to relevant research, this book is a good read and will be a valuable resource in sport-related higher education over the coming years. As one of the most influential countries in the formulation of sustainable development, and as one of the world’s leading (and richest) sporting nations, Norway has the potential to address these issues at all levels. From the likes of Gro Harlem Brundtland who made a major impact on a global scale, to the everyday practice in local ski tracks and football pitches.

Copyright © Daniel Svensson 2022


Guttmann, Allen (1978). From ritual to record: the nature of modern sports. New York: Columbia U.P.
McCullough, Brian P. & Kellison, Timothy B. (eds.) (2018). Routledge Handbook of Sport and the Environment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
McCullough, Brian P.; Pfahl, Michael E. & Nguyen, Sheila N. (2016). The green waves of environmental sustainability in sport. Sport in Society, 19:7, 1040-1065.



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