Mission: impossible

We looked in on the efforts to make sport more sustainable in the Netherlands before the worldwide pandemic brought the sector to a virtual standstill, but the movement deserves renewed attention.  With an end to Covid-19 on the horizon, sport sustainability is set to move back into the spotlight. Around the globe, the Olympic movement, the sports federations, leagues, clubs and groups such as the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) and Sports and Sustainability International (SandSI) have not stood still and have been revising their plans and making new ones where necessary to move sport along the way toward sustainability.  When the COP26, the November UN Climate Change Conference takes place in Glasgow, a whole host of gatherings, workshops and presentations concerning this pressing topic will take place. 

Perhaps the biggest advancement in this country was an announcement from the headquarters of the National Olympic Committee and National Sport Federation (NOC*NSF) in Arnhem shortly before the Tokyo Summer Games got underway.  In that announcement, it was made known that a new position had been created carrying the title of “Chef de Emission”.  The new position should be carried out next to that of the Chef de Mission, who is responsible for the Olympic representation of the country.  Tapped for the position was Marcelien Bos-de Koning, a three-time world champion sailor and Olympic  medalist.  Together with Lobke Berkhoudt, she took silver in the water at Qingdao during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games in the 470 class.  She returned to the Olympics in 2012 as part a three woman Elliott 6m crew that placed eighth off the coast of Weymouth and Portland in England. 

Marcelien is very well suited to task.  During her tenure as a competitive sailor, she navigated her share of polluted waters, even seeing race schedules changed due to hazardous conditions.  She has also witnessed first-hand the changes in weather conditions that are a big part of the sustainability conversations taking place.  For years, the winds of an early season race in France were buoyed by the arrival of the Mistral, a phenomenon which has seen marked change over recent decades.  Her earnest desire to leverage her intimate relationship with water and broaden her horizons to include even more of the environmental spectrum, led her accept the nomination without hesitation.  As a communications manager for a governmental organization called Topsector Water & Maritime, she had already honed her abilities to work with a sense of urgency.  These Topsectors were called into being by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy as a response to the worldwide financial crisis which started in 2008 and were instrumental in leading the economic recovery of the Netherlands.  Marcelien was also named Mayor of “Your North Sea”, a program to champion the protection of the body of water so important to this country and the region.  The appointment, announced by none other than HRH Prince Carlos de Bourbon de Parme, put her in the center of a partnership of diverse stakeholders all with a vested interest in the sustainable future of the North Sea. 

Marcelien confesses that the first few months of the job have been a flurry of reading up on the subject, meeting with experts and trying to have a look at all the information that has been sent her way by well-wishers sharing their own experience and information.  While her knowledge of what is happening on, in and under the water was up to speed, she is using a new set of telltales to navigate the many daunting land-based challenges.   A good segue for her are the developments to store water under football pitches, an innovation that will not only help to conserve water but also to cool our sweltering cities in the summer.  With plenty of wind in her sails, she has been making good progress but also knows the job at hand will require nothing short of flank speed to meet the challenges ahead. In fact, there are two tacks which need to followed: benchmarking and meeting sport’s own climate goals such as the ambitious targets set for Paris Summer Games as well as leveraging sport as a platform to help move the needle on sustainability.  She has hit the ground running.  For the first tack, the NOC*NSF has already plotted a course for future-proofing the fleet of sports facilities as laid out in a plan entitled, Routekaart Verduurzaming Sport.  Plying the second tack will see the Chef de Mission look to increase awareness – a good example being the opportunity to address the participants of the Amsterdam International Water Week in early November. 

It is easy to think the solutions lie in government programs and subsidies.  To be sure, the government will always have a major role to play in questions of climate, sustainability and the environment but the newly minted Chef de Emission is also keenly aware of the contribution that is needed from the private sector.  “They will lead the way”, Bos-de Koning confidently states, adding that the private sector is where we will see the designs and innovation as well as the investments needed to navigate the route to a sustainable future for sport.  She is also confident that Dutch industry will play an important role internationally.  One of the examples she cites is the work of the architecture firm Verhoeven CS who won the bid to design the swimming venue for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.  Built by the Metropole du Grand Paris, the Olympic Aquatics Centre (OAC) will host artistic swimming, diving and water polo events in 2024. It will then be used by associations, schools and local residents. Its size should enable France to regularly host major international competitions.  It will be at the forefront of sustainable sport venues with its use of circular building materials and an energy neutral design.  Given the tragic stories of Olympic swimming venues which have been mothballed, the use case for this stellar aquatic facility in Saint-Denis is just as important as the array of solar panels on the roof.   

It might be tempting to discount the concept of a Chef de Emission as clever moniker for a largely ceremonial position.  For Marcelien, nothing could be further from the truth – she knows what is at stake.  The stakes are high but so is her motivation.  One of the stated objectives in creating the position is to convince counterparts around the world to also appoint Chef de Missions to lead their own green sports movements. The bar for the job has been set high in this country.  In the Netherlands, our own Chef’s experience from the cockpit of a 470 to the meeting rooms of the water and maritime industry will serve her well.  Citius, Altius, Fortius…and yes, Godspeed Marcelien!

Written by John Mahnen