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The Oslo Bislett Games transforms from “Oil Games” to “Eco-Lighthouse Games”

February 22 2023

The Oslo Bislett Games is no stranger to breaking records. Since its first world record in 1965, athletes from all over the world have come to Oslo to make history. But over the past seven years the Bislett Games has been on its own record-breaking journey, making an extraordinary transformation with the aim of becoming the world’s most sustainable international athletics event.

The Oslo Bislett Games transforms from “Oil Games” to “Eco-Lighthouse Games”

From oil partnership to environmental world leader

In the summer of 2016, the Bislett Games and ExxonMobil ended their historic long-term partnership. ExonnMobil had been the sole title sponsors of the Games for twenty-nine years. It was a make-or-break moment for the Bislett Games and meeting director Steinar Hoen.

In the years leading up to 2016, the Games’ partnership with the oil company had become increasingly challenging for their reputation. ‘The name ExxonMobil began to be disturbing, from a reputational point of view,’ Hoen explains. In 2014, activists began to protest outside the stadium during events, while other sponsors began to distance themselves from the Games and the ExxonMobil name.

So, when the title partnership came to an end, Hoen and the Bislett team decided to make a decisive break from the past. ‘We thought, let’s take a chance now, let’s turn 180 degrees and really make a change,’ Hoen says.

Instead of searching for a new title partner, Bislett decided to use the opportunity to place sustainability at the heart of the organisation. ‘It was time to take back ownership and embrace change,’ Hoen says. ‘Our goal was to show leadership in ethics, sustainability, and sports.’

This meant identifying the changes the Games could make to become more sustainable; finding the most effective ways to implement these changes; and partnering with a wide range of sustainable organisations, rather than identifying a new title partner. It also meant reconnecting with the local area and aligning with the city of Oslo’s own environmental ambitions.

Leading with ambition

Having decided to reshape the Bislett Games, Hoen and his team were clear about the scale of their ambitions. They did not just want to become more sustainable: they wanted to be ‘the most environmentally sustainable track and field meet on the planet’.

As Norway’s biggest annual sporting event and a member of the Diamond League, Bislett had a global reputation, and had the potential to set an international standard. In fact, setting such an ambitious target was in tune with Bislett’s history.

‘The Bislett Stadium is known around the world as the world record track,’ Hoen explains. ‘People have had big ambitions, and they have come to Oslo and made them come true. The 69 world records set over fifty years are proof that Bislett knows how to set ambitious targets and achieve them.’

To begin, Bislett set three ambitions:

  • To organise the world’s most sustainable athletics meeting
  • To become the leading meeting place for sustainable companies, NGOs, and sports
  • To showcase the city of Oslo’s ambitions as a sustainable and modern city

In 2017, Hoen and his team partnered with the Zero Emission Resource Organisation (ZERO), who helped the team identify how they could reduce their carbon emissions. Working with the municipality, who own the stadium, the team set out to make the annual meeting as sustainable as possible. At the same time, they began instituting changes within the stadium itself, which also operates as a public sporting venue and is accessible to members of the public seven days a week.

A sustainable stadium for a sustainable future

Seven years on, the changes that emerged have cemented the Oslo Bislett Games as a spearhead in the field of sustainability.

To begin, the games re-branded as the Oslo Bislett Games, a move which reconnected the event to its local community. The city of Oslo has its own ambitions to become the most sustainable city in Europe, and back in 2016, when Bislett began its sustainability journey, the city was preparing its bid to become the European Green Capital in 2019. The city had also set its own ambitious targets of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. It made sense for Bislett to work in tune with this broader culture shift within its home city.

The team also made changes to the stadium. In 2018, it became the first sporting venue in Norway to install solar panels on its roof. They also installed a back-up battery pack made of recycled car batteries and installed a waste recycling system. All of their heating and electricity comes from renewable sources, while all vehicles used around the stadium are electric- or hydrogen-powered.

The annual Bislett Games was also entirely reworked to become a zero-emissions event. All athletes take the express train from the airport, stay at a centrally located hotel, and are transported by electric and hydrogen buses to training sessions and to the stadium. From 2017 to 2019, before interruptions caused by the pandemic, the Oslo and Stockholm meetings were deliberately scheduled to take place on the same weekend so that athletes could travel by train between the two cities and reduce their air travel. For athletes arriving by plane, flights were offset. From next year the team are aiming to make the Oslo and Stockholm meetings back-to-back once more.

Meanwhile, the Bislett team have actively engaged with partners, sponsors, and NGOs to promote sustainability, green energy, and circular economy. Rather than working with a sole title partner, the Games have partnered with thirteen businesses and organisations that also centre sustainability. These include Storebrand, the first Norwegian insurance company to divest from coal; Norsk Gjenvinning, a recycling and waste management company; Hyundai, who provide electric vehicles; and Thon Hotels, whose Norway hotels are all Eco Lighthouse certified. Creating this so-called ‘Green Team’ of sustainability-focused businesses, rather than relying on a single stream of sponsorship revenue, has meant that Bislett have been able to replace their title sponsor revenue while also connecting and collaborating with leaders in the field of environment.

Bislett has taken part in public awareness campaigns alongside many of their new ‘Green Team’, including a ‘Leave the Car at Home’ campaign, which encouraged people to take public transport. Bislett have also established a new partnership with Nature and Youth, the largest environmental youth organisation in Norway, which allows young people to volunteer at events at the stadium. The Bislett Stadium, which is located in the centre of Oslo, provides facilities for the local community every day of the week, and the stadium’s sustainability goals are cemented in the venue: as you walk in the door, Bislett’s sustainability commandments are written across the walls. ‘When people come in, they understand from the very beginning,’ Hoen says.

Hoen and his team have always been clear about the importance of accountability. The Bislett Games were the first sporting event in Norway to receive ISO 20121 certification, and were also certified according to ISO14064 accounting and verification standards.  ‘I was very clear from the beginning when I set this out that I needed somebody to check me,’ he explains. ‘I was telling everybody my goal, and I wanted somebody behind to check me and check the numbers.’

Numbers show success across the board

Almost seven years after making the change, the numbers speak for themselves. Bislett has cut emissions by 40%. Significantly, they have also made long-term savings by implementing these sustainable changes. Their travelling budget has also been reduced by 40%, and they have also made substantial savings by investing in solar energy and an effective waste management system.

Hoen emphasises that sustainability goes beyond simply making changes that are better for the environment. True sustainability is not only better for the climate, and when making decisions, the team have a clear approach. ‘We work from three pillars,’ Hoen says. ‘It needs to be better for the climate, it needs to be better for the users and athletes, and you need to save money.’

The changes made at Bislett prove that sustainability is both ecologically and economically sensible. This year, the team have made one of the final steps towards making the stadium as environmentally friendly and cost-efficient as possible by installing a comprehensive waste management system. The recycling system, which is clearly signposted throughout the venue and is used by athletes, members of the public, and attendees of private events alike, includes recycling points for food waste, plastics, carboard, textiles, large items, and electronics.

The team hope that, now it is fully operational, they can take their recycling rate from 20% to 70%. This not only reduces their environmental footprint but will also cut the cost of waste management by 50%. ‘It’s better for the environment, better for our wallet, and better for our users—which is true sustainability,’ Hoen says.

Learning lessons for the future

Seven years on, the Oslo Bislett Games are now firmly at the forefront of sustainable sports. While most of their major targets have been met, the team continue to stay on top of new technologies, and are looking towards the installation of additional solar panels, and the introduction of new electric minibuses.

However, now that they have successfully made their own changes, Hoen and his team are turning their attention to helping others. ‘The main focus now is to take everything we’ve learned and take it international,’ Hoen says. ‘We want to do our part to help others in the Diamond League reach a high level.’

Hoen is now running the Sustainability Working Group for the Diamond League and hopes that Bislett can lead the way as World Athletics look to implement future sustainability targets. He hopes to help other meetings set their own goals in 2023, and begin to work towards 2030, when World Athletics hope that all events will be climate neutral.

Hoen is encouraged by the vision and enthusiasm of the younger generation. He encourages anyone looking to make their own sustainable changes to be conscientious in choosing partnerships, and to be aware of the threats of greenwashing. He also emphasises the need for a genuine commitment to change. ‘You need somebody in your organisation that has energy and spirit, follows new technology, and knows all the new things,’ he says.

The story of Bislett is certainly inspirational, but their success is a leading example of how sports leaders should not be afraid to stand out from the pack. Bold decision-making, public accountability, and carefully choosing ethical partnerships has paved the way for long-term, meaningful change. As World Athletics begin to implement mandatory sustainability requirements, it will be up to organisers to choose how they want their own sustainability stories to end.

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    Read moreBethany White