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Eco epicentre: How Copenhagen is pushing boundaries for sustainability in sport

The Danish capital has long been hailed for its eco efforts and hosting events to help build lasting legacies. Now, the city intends to keep positioning itself as a leading location for sports ready to show sustainable responsibility.

12 May 2021 Ed Dixon

“We say that life is easy in Copenhagen,” says Lars Vallentin, senior manager of events at Wonderful Copenhagen, the official tourism organisation of the capital region of Denmark.

“It's easy to get here, it's easy to get around in the city. Then, once you’re here, we suggest you get on your bicycle. We cycle because that's what we do, we've always been on the bicycle. It's clean, it's fast and it's good for you.”

Denmark and its capital city have never been shy to champion conviviality and wellbeing. Referred to as ‘hygge’, this collective word for cosiness and contentment of the soul remains a core part of Danish culture. Ultimately, it is about atmosphere and experience, rather than things.

That way of life is apparent in every corner of Copenhagen. From an abundance of cheery cafes to canals with water clean enough to swim in, the place exudes friendliness and that famed Scandinavian spirit. It’s little wonder that Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, with Copenhagen named Europe’s healthiest capital city by Treated.com in 2020.

As a health and hygge hotspot, Copenhagen has long been a draw for sports organisations. Over the last decade, the International Cycling Union (UCI), World Athletics, the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), among many more, have taken some of their biggest events to the city. That list is only set to grow.

“The city has a long tradition of organising major events,” says UCI sports director Peter Van den Abeele. “The Danish capital is an excellent example of a cycling city and received the first-ever UCI Bike City label in 2008. The label supports and reward cities and regions which not only host major UCI cycling events but also invest in developing cycling amongst its wider population, alongside related infrastructures and programmes.

“We’ve awarded Denmark [and Copenhagen] several UCI World Championships in the coming years, [including] the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in 2024 and UCI BMX World Championships in 2025. We continue to work with them on a number of projects in the future.”

“Copenhagen is a safe city, it's a clean city, it's a smart city,” says Dorte Vibjerg, chief executive of Sparta Athletics and Running. One of Europe’s largest race organisers, Sparta helps stage the Copenhagen Marathon, an event that usually attracts more than 100,000 spectators and galvanises the city’s population.

“The whole city is coming out, cheering from their windows, their balconies, having a party whenever we're having one of our major events,” continues Vibjerg. “The events truly become part of the city. Copenhagen has helped us level up internationally. We are now comparable with Berlin and London and other great marathons.”

The Copenhagen Marathon attracts more than 100,000 spectators each year

As a destination for sport, Copenhagen’s reputation has enjoyed a steady rise. The 2020 Uefa European Championship was meant to be the next major milestone for the city, with Denmark down as one of 12 co-hosts for the continental tournament. Instead, last year’s soccer extravaganza is now set for this summer.

Amid continued Covid uncertainty, in March the city’s Parken Stadium was cleared to host four matches with at least 11,000 fans in attendance. Vallentin, who was speaking to SportsPro prior to this announcement, remained confident the Euros would still be coming to Copenhagen. He also acknowledges how having truly global events in the capital brings a number of benefits, though some of these go beyond what one might expect.

“There are the obvious ones, tourism income and all that, but the local pride is also very important,” says Vallentin. “People can get involved, such as through volunteering, which makes them proud of the city they live and work in. It gives our citizens the opportunity to network with other people.

“To say we are a major capital city, we have to provide some value for the locals. With these events we can prove to them they live in a vibrant city where they can see international stars and events. That's a must if you want to call yourself a major international city.”

Copenhagen’s waterways offer a unique setting for an urban dip 

With a population of under 800,000, Copenhagen is not going to match a lot of other capitals for size and scope. But that’s not the aim. Instead, the city knows what it is and what it stands for. There is little value in trying to compete with, say, Tokyo. Instead, Copenhagen focuses on its values and what it does best.

“Very importantly,” adds Vallentin, “I would say that life in general and people are more important in Copenhagen than monuments and attractions. It's more about experiences and life in the streets, mixing with the locals.

“We are a very safe and inclusive city. We are a low-key country, we like to say we are peaceful.”

This understated Danish demeanour belies what is a well-run, highly efficient operation when Copenhagen is on hosting duty. Great efforts have been made to improve infrastructure, including public transport. The Copenhagen metro allows for easy travel across every neighbourhood, with the capital’s airport – ranked as Northern Europe’s best by Skytrax in 2019 – a mere 12-minute ride from the city centre. Copenhagen is also the third safest city in the world among those with a population of fewer than five million people – and number eight overall – according to the 2019 Safe Cities Index.

Over the last few decades, the city has continued to develop and finetune its offering when staging competitions. What remains unchanged, though, is the commitment to hosting events that truly match Copenhagen’s DNA.

That reasoning put the brakes on a Danish Formula One Grand Prix, a fleeting proposal put forward by wealthy local businessmen. Naturally, for any event coming to Copenhagen, the city does make sure to rigorously assess the economic impact. But it also does so for more emotive, arguably less tangible factors such as national pride and grassroots participation. Legacy is key.

That approach also allows for the capital to, as Vallentin puts it, “challenge federations”. Yet this is not a case of confrontation. Rather, Copenhagen is keen that sport uncovers opportunity to show it is addressing the biggest issues of today, one of which is, of course, climate change. 

Copenhagen’s commitment to sustainability is nothing new; its eco routes stem from decades of cycling. Arguably the most bike-friendly city in the world, Copenhagen has five times more bicycles than cars, with 62 per cent of residents favouring pedal power for their commute. All told, the capital has 450 kilometres of bicycle lanes, as well as being packed with running routes.

Today, the city is second on the International Congress and Convention Association’s Global Destination Sustainability Index. Wonderful Copenhagen is also the world’s first certified Green Tourism Organisation.

Whatever way you look at it, Denmark is a leading light in environmental conservation. Copenhagen has set a goal of being the first carbon neutral capital city by 2025, while Denmark as a whole aims to be entirely independent of fossil fuels by 2050.

The city has 450 kilometres of bicycle lanes

Perhaps there is no greater physical manifestation of the capital’s dedication to sustainability than the CopenHill. The facility includes an artificial ski slope and the world’s highest climbing wall of 85 metres, built on top of Copenhagen’s new waste management centre.

Costing a reported US$670 million, the waste-to-energy plant stands as a symbol of the city’s eco intentions. Beneath the ski slope, an estimated 440,000 tons of waste will be converted annually into enough clean energy to deliver electricity and heating for 150,000 homes.

“For the last 15 to 20 years we can say that we have a great experience in hosting,” says Vallentin. “We know what the federations want but more and more we’re looking into sustainability and reducing our environmental impact.”

People are more important in Copenhagen than monuments and attractions.

Pointing to Copenhagen as a frontrunner in renewable energy, upcycling, recycling, green mobility and smart city solutions, he continues: “We have to be more responsible and do our part. I think sustainability has always been in our DNA. People are brought up to be good citizens and to look at how we can be more sustainable.”

Many feel that the sports industry’s current efforts to offset carbon emissions are either lacking or long overdue. The sector would do well to adhere to Copenhagen’s way of thinking. The UCI’s Van den Abeele believes “we can all learn from the ambitious Danish strategies” to grow cycling and, thus, the sustainable benefits it brings. Evidently, the need for sport to be seen as a leading example away from the action is growing ever more pressing.

Going green, however, doesn’t have to come at the cost of spectacle or commercial ambition. An idyllic setting, coupled with a pedigree for sports event hosting, means Copenhagen is able to create an expansive, global feel despite its comparatively small size. 

“Federations are depending on their sponsors, of course,” says Vallentin. “So what we like to do at the beginning with a federation is engage in an open dialogue and be very creative with them and the sponsors.

“It used to be about banners in the venues or on the walls. Now it's more about being flexible. Providing things like a square in the city where a telecommunications company can showcase itself to the people of Copenhagen, which they can link via video to the rest of the world.

“It's a question of being open and creative, to be able for all of us to get something out of it. We know the importance of making the sponsors happy and we understand that we have a major role to play there.

“On top of that, we still do city branding, we put up posters and engage the local media. Then you can get the right atmosphere. Being the local tourism agency, we do the promotion in the city and we have a close collaboration with the Visit Denmark organisation and they do promotions with and on behalf of us all over the world.”

We've had a chance to rethink tourism and try to rebuild with sustainability in mind.

That way of working is clearly bearing fruit. The UCI, as mentioned, has committed to several events in Copenhagen over the next decade, with Van den Abeele stating the organisation is “excited to continue doing so”. Indeed, the city appears to be in the sweet spot of delivering world-renowned, progressive events without losing any of the capital’s character or charm.

“Because it's not a bigger city, it's easier to work with Copenhagen for finding solutions and trying new things,” says Vibjerg. “We have a closer relationship with the city in what we are doing.

“One of the main things for us is using technology to enhance the experience both for the runners and the audience around the event. We have the possibility to work with Copenhagen on new technology solutions and incorporating them into the city.

“It's a sharing city. Everybody there is welcoming you. It's a big part of what Copenhagen is.”

A symbol of the capital’s eco-friendliness, the artificial CopenHill ski slope sits atop a waste management centre

That warm welcoming looks set to continue, with Copenhagen’s sporting calendar busy until 2025. The Euros remain pencilled in for this year, as do the International Canoe Federation (ICF) Canoe Sprint World Championships. In 2022, the Tour de France’s Grand Départ will kick off in Denmark’s capital, a standout in a schedule also featuring the BWF World Championships and those UCI events over the next four years.

It could just be the start of a packed period. Denmark has put itself forward as host of the Uefa Women’s European Championship in 2025 and the 2027 Fifa Women’s World Cup, the latter part of a proposal alongside the other Nordic countries. If successful, Copenhagen and its Parken Stadium will be ready and waiting.

Much may be in the pipeline but Covid, as recent months have shown, still has the potential to disregard even the best laid plans. The tourism industry remains on its knees, even though vaccines have provided a light at the end of the tunnel. Not that Copenhagen has spent the last year standing idle.

“We've had a chance to rethink tourism in Copenhagen and try to rebuild with sustainability in mind,” explains Vallentin. “We're finding new ways of bringing tourism back. We're making it even more possible for cruise ships to be more sustainable when they are in the city. We're looking to make other areas of Copenhagen more attractive for visitors, so we don't have too many people in the same place.”

Certainly, the capital wants to use its raft of sports events to reignite Denmark’s tourism economy. In 2019, the number of bed nights in the city topped 9.6 million, a number Copenhagen wants to eclipse, however hefty a challenge that will be.

“We've learned that we have to rethink tourism and rebuild,” says Vallentin. “It's a balancing act, but I'm optimistic we'll do that and have a lot of tourism in the years to come, picking up from a big 2022, I would say.”

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