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Feature08 Sep 2021


Weltklasse Zurich’s efforts underline that athletics is the perfect fit for sustainability

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Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium

When Christoph Joho announced the Weltklasse Zurich's commitment to deliver a carbon-neutral competition 13 years ago, few event organisers in the sports industry were actively investigating ways in which they could reduce their environmental impact.

That was certainly the case in athletics, where the concept of integrating sustainability into a meeting’s operation rarely came up at planning or strategy meetings.

“We started in 2008 – that was a time when nobody was interested in this topic,” Joho recalls with a laugh.

But thanks largely to Joho’s passion and leadership, the organisation’s pioneering efforts, ambitions and achievements have since taken on the form of a one-stop to-do list for other meets exploring ways to decrease their CO2 emissions to help combat climate change.

That first carbon-neutral edition in 2009, Joho said, was mostly a matter of measuring their environmental impact and then compensating for it through the purchase of offsets. Analyses in 2008 and 2009 formed the starting points from which all future efforts and achievements would be measured, launching an endless search for areas where their CO2 emissions could be further reduced or eliminated entirely.

Weltklasse’s action plan

The work Joho, who took on the role of co-meeting director alongside Andreas Hediger in 2015, has led hasn’t been particularly sexy or complex, but it has been methodical and necessary, has produced results and can serve as a useful template for others to emulate or adopt.

After that initial baseline measurement, Joho and his team identified four key areas where they have managed to chip away at their environmental impact with each subsequent edition: waste and resource management, energy and infrastructure, traffic and transport, and food and plants.

Waste reduction efforts are helped by the Letzigrund Stadium’s goal of being waste-free. All waste at the venue is recycled, including food waste, which is processed into green electricity, and frying oil which is processed into bio-diesel which fuels the food and beverage supplier’s fleet. The venue itself also helps with its energy footprint. Letzigrund is powered entirely by renewable energy sources which include rooftop solar panels and wood pellet heating.

The use of paper has been reduced dramatically over the years. Invitations and promotional materials and most tickets are delivered digitally. Programmes are printed in smaller quantities on lighter weight recycled paper. Information provided to media professionals is no longer pre-printed by default. Any paper that is produced is properly recycled.

So is unused food. What is left unsold is either returned to the suppliers (where permitted by law) or given to a local organisation for recycling in line with local regulations.

To minimise the impact of transport, all event-related locations – competition venues, hotels and offices – are located within walking distance of each other. International guests are provided with complimentary passes for the city’s public transport system and no parking is made available, encouraging spectators to walk, bike or use public buses or trams.

Most athletes are flown to Zurich by Swiss, an official partner of the meeting. The airline has reduced its CO2 emissions by 29 percent since 2003 through a fleet renewal.

The World Athletics Health & Science team will also be on hand this year to monitor the air at the stadium as part of its Air Quality project.

No successful event can be delivered without good food. But it too can leave a significant footprint.

To reduce that, more than 80 percent of the food provided at the meeting, both via the concession stands and VIP areas, is from the region, produced within a 50-kilometre radius of the city. There is a strong focus on seasonal products and, increasingly, a wider offering of vegetarian options. Buffets have been eliminated to reduce waste, while food trays, drinking cups and tableware are either recyclable or biodegradable.

To help reduce water and single-use plastic waste, volunteers are given a high-quality reusable water bottle that can be filled at a water station.

Additionally, VIP areas and offices are decorated with seasonal flowers only, 80 percent of those from Switzerland and the rest from European countries. Plants are rented from local suppliers and returned after the competition while cut flowers are made available to local residents. Those who choose to can make a donation for the flowers which is contributed to the meeting’s offset project.

Those emissions that can’t be avoided are compensated for by offsets offered by certified providers. In the past those have helped fund reforestation, clean water and renewable energy projects in developing countries, areas that are being most hard hit by climate change.

Athletics – the perfect fit for sustainability

A lot has been accomplished over the past 12 years, but to Joho, it's only a start.

“I’m not yet where I want to be,” he said.

Looking forward, Joho said he’ll be focusing on a more integrated sustainability approach that takes into account the social and economic impacts of his meeting, areas where he believes athletics is well suited to become an exemplary role model for sustainability in sport.

“Athletics is strong in the social part of sustainability. In what we can do for a society – that is where we have the most impact. Accessibility, inclusion, integration – athletics is a perfect fit."

To that end, its contribution has already reaped dividends.

The meeting invests more than CHF 700,000 (EUR 645.000) annually into the sport in Switzerland to support the development of rising stars, coaches and top athletes. The foundation for that has come through its UBS Kids Cup project, the largest youth competition in the country for 7-15-year-olds, whose participation number has topped one million over the past 10 years.

Pole vaulter Angelica Moser and rising combined events star Simon Ehammer are products of the programme, which promotes the sport year-round through events organised at schools and clubs that first and foremost encourage physical activity. In 2019 more than 178,000 kids participated in 1,116 events throughout the country. Those too will also be included in the Weltklasse Zurich organisation’s overall carbon footprint.

The meeting promotes gender equality by hosting an equal number of men’s and women’s events and paying equal prize money, has integrated wheelchair races into its programme and has an equal number of girls and boys categories and races in the UBS Kids Cup. It is also looking to further align and continually expand its contribution to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2019 a comprehensive sustainability analysis of the meeting was carried out by the Chur University of Applied Sciences which helped identify ways to further expand its commitment to social and economic issues. Joho said that closer examinations at how sustainability is anchored within the organisation will also continue and that he hopes that a sustainability officer can be added to their staff.

Joho believes that many meetings want to do more on the sustainability front but lack the time or resources to implement their own strategies. His advice? Approach it step by step.

“Start it simple, maybe just with one goal each year, then build from there.” But it’s important to start.

“Sustainability is becoming a prerequisite of sorts,” Joho said. “This will be a key element in negotiations with our sponsors. If you are not showing that your event and organisation are moving towards a more sustainable approach, sponsors will shy away.”

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics

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