The Copenhagen Way part three: How SailGP’s Denmark Grand Prix is setting the standard for sustainable sporting events

SailGP obviously wants to grow and expand, and Copenhagen wants to show itself to the world stage as a major sporting venue, which it is

Andy Thompson, Chief Commercial and Financial Officer, SailGP

SailGP has found safe harbour in the port of Nordhavn.

The international sailing series is only in its third season, Copenhagen is hosting the Denmark Sail Grand Prix for the first time, and the venue until recently comprised of little more than a shipyard site. And yet on a sunny August Saturday afternoon in the Danish capital, it looks and feels as though sailing is exactly where it belongs.

On race weekend, the spectator stand stretching across the Oceankaj waterfront offers fans an idyllic vantage point to watch Copenhagen’s inaugural Denmark Grand Prix. Meanwhile, the CopenHill ski slope and the Middelgrunden offshore wind farm provide a fitting backdrop for an event looking to promote sustainability to global audiences.

This is the second time SailGP has raced in Denmark after visiting Aarhus in August 2021. Speaking to SportsPro ahead of this year’s event, Andy Thompson, the series’ chief commercial and financial officer, seems more than satisfied with the league’s decision to bring its hydrofoiling fleet of nine F50 catamarans to Copenhagen’s shores.

“This is an ideal location for a SailGP event,” he says, as music pulsates through the stands at Oceankaj in anticipation of the race. “The Danish public have really embraced this.

Indeed, as Danish flags flicker in the sun, the crowd musters up its loudest roar for the Denmark team each time it ripples across the home straight towards the finish line. Thompson says that this atmosphere, coupled with the prospect of fans queuing up outside a venue for a sailing event, would have been almost unimaginable for the sport five to ten years ago.

“They really get behind us, the city gets behind us,” he continues. “As we’re sitting here, the crowd is right on the shore, the racetrack is right in front of them, the hospitality is right there, the media is right here, and it just sets up perfectly for us as a racetrack.”

SailGP is among an increasing number of sports properties bringing their events to Copenhagen, which this summer staged the Tour de France’s Grand Depart and next year will welcome badminton’s BWF World Championships. Optimistic that the city will showcase many memorable sailing contests in the years to come, Thompson believes the Danish capital is a perfect fit for the series.

“SailGP obviously wants to grow and expand, and Copenhagen wants to show itself to the world stage as a major sporting venue, which it is,” he explains. “So ultimately, we’re trying to get to a real sweet spot where it works for both parties.”

Indeed, SailGP’s calendar features some of the world’s most glamorous destinations, but Thompson believes Copenhagen is already among its most iconic. As he explains, the series’ strategy is to build long-term collaborations with its host cities in order to have a lasting impact.

“You talk about Bermuda and you talk about San Francisco, you talk about Chicago, and then Saint-Tropez [is] obviously an iconic location,” Thompson says. “Copenhagen’s right up there. The partners get excited about that. It’s just one of those global cities.

“It’s about having that consistent date on a calendar, where if you’re in Copenhagen, or if you’re Danish, you know that each year the Sail Grand Prix is going to be on a certain day. You’re going to come out and enjoy it.”

Powered by Nature

For SailGP, words mean nothing without action, a mantra which can be seen in its commitment to sustainability and is shared by the city of Copenhagen.

In line with the slogan ‘powered by nature’, the Grand Prix tech site in Nordhavn is fully generated by wind power, meaning the F50 racing boats’ batteries were also completely charged using renewable energy.

From plant-based food options and fully recyclable cutlery, to Carlsberg’s newly designed plastic beer bottles and electric buses taking fans to the venue, every detail of the Denmark Sail Grand Prix appeared to be geared towards reducing the event’s carbon footprint.

For Fiona Morgan, SailGP’s global director of purpose and impact, the often challenging task of delivering an event that fits the league’s sustainability guidelines is simply the modus operandi in Copenhagen. Hailing Denmark as a “leader in sustainability”, Morgan is impressed by the capital’s eco-friendly approach, which she says makes the lives of the organisers a lot easier.

“This event is 100 per cent powered by clean energy, because in Denmark that’s normal,” Morgan declares. “They just operate sustainably, that’s who they are. It’s not an extra ask, it’s just the way the events team work.”

Morgan even goes as far as to suggest that Copenhagen can serve as an example for other SailGP venues.

“It’s a showcase to our other host cities and events, so we can use this as that blueprint,” she continues. “It’s such a perfect venue for SailGP. This is not a one-off event, this is really the part of the way the city operates.”

Making a difference

Morgan notes that last year’s Denmark Sail Grand Prix in Aarhus had the lowest carbon footprint of any SailGP weekend to date. This year’s edition is set to go one better, with Thompson revealing that Copenhagen’s Grand Prix will be the series’ most sustainable event yet.

Copenhagen’s dedication to sustainable solutions and commitment to powering communities with renewable energy is perhaps best exemplified by the location of the Denmark Sail Grand Prix itself.

Nordhavn, the setting for the race which serves as Copenhagen’s seaport, has undergone a large-scale regeneration in recent times, with the city looking to expand the district by a further 100 hectares over the next ten to 20 years.

The driving force behind the redevelopment project is a desire to transform Nordhavn into a ‘five-minute neighbourhood’, where public transport stops are always within a five-minute walk and the area is easily accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. What was once the forgotten northern edge of the city is now a thriving hub home to more than 40,000 residents, and is fast becoming one of the city’s most attractive hotspots.

In many ways, the venue now seems tailormade for SailGP, which ran a number of eco-focused projects around the Denmark event. Among those was the implementation of the series’ first-ever ‘fish hotels’, which saw SailGP donate biohuts to help protect Copenhagen’s native fish population. Copenhagen already houses more fishing nurseries than any other city in the world, but  Morgan points out that SailGP’s efforts are part of its mission to work on a customised impact project in each of its race locations.

“We work with every host city on an impact project,” she adds. “We don’t say ‘legacy’, because we always think that sounds old and past, when we’re about future and impact.”

SailGP’s ethos can also be seen in its unique Impact League, a separate leaderboard which ranks teams based on how they perform against a series of sustainability criteria, whether it be the implementation of clean energy solutions or the removal of single-use plastics from their operations.

The Impact League is the only league in sports that actually celebrates sustainable action for teams, so I’m super proud of it”
Fiona Morgan, Director of Purpose & Impact, SailGP

 

 

 

Morgan believes that the innovative new concept can set a standard for other sports leagues and organisations around the world.

“The Impact League is the only league in sports that actually celebrates sustainable action for teams, so I’m super proud of it,” she says. “We launched it last season. It’s still new in its development, but it’s seen massive mindset shifts.”

According to Nicolai Sehested, the captain of Denmark’s SailGP outfit, the Impact League is taken seriously by the teams and adds another competitive element to the series.

“Impact League is something all the sailors from all teams buy into,” Sehested tells SportsPro. “It’s a competition, but at the same time we get to make a difference, we get to inspire people to do more for the climate. So it is something people really embrace and really take on.  

“And I can tell you the competition is very high between the teams. We are trying to get a little edge on the other teams and to get more points.”

Recalling a conversation with Great Britain SailGP captain and four-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie, Thompson reveals teammates even scrutinise each other’s kettle usage at team bases as they look to optimise their performance for the Impact League.

Building an inclusive sport

Another key pillar of SailGP’s strategy is to raise the profile and accessibility of sailing, meaning it is important for the series to seize the opportunity when staging races in the countries where its teams are from.

Despite Denmark’s rich and well documented sailing pedigree, the country is looking to use its SailGP event as a platform to encourage more of its younger generation to get involved in the sport.

Central to those efforts is SailGP’s Inspire programme, which provides opportunities for youngsters in partner cities to gain work experience in multiple fields. In Copenhagen, the initiative engaged more than 1,300 students across the race weekend, a new record figure for a SailGP event.

It’s great that [the Danish team] get their home crowd behind them and really get to showcase sailing in their country,” says Morgan. “What we want to do is build the sport in the territories that we operate.”

The ultimate aim of Inspire is to diversify the sport of sailing without race, gender, or socioeconomic status acting as a barrier for entry. That mission is another reason that SailGP is a good fit for Copenhagen, which prides itself on being an inclusive city.

One initiative introduced by SailGP in its second season was a new ruling that dictated each team must have at least one female member on the boat at all times. That commitment to gender equality is something that also resonates strongly with those competing in the series.

An Olympic bronze medallist at Rio 2016 and a World Championship winner in 2017, Denmark’s Katja Salskov-Iversen praises SailGP for creating a pathway for young women to compete in sailing all the way through to professional level.

“I never really dreamed about going to the Olympics, and I never really dreamed about being a professional sailor,” she says. “I think it’s important to show the way in both sustainability, but also [in] bringing females into the sport and bringing younger kids into sailing.”

Salskov-Iversen’s teammate, Sehested, shares those sentiments and is hopeful that SailGP can help further promote sailing in Denmark. One of the youngest helmsmen in the series, the 31-year-old is eager to grow the sport and believes the Inspire programme, in tandem with the Grand Prix in his hometown of Copenhagen, will play a big part in achieving that goal.

“I think it’s more important for our team than any other team because we don’t have the same pipeline in Denmark as some of the biggest sailing nations have,” he adds. “We need it, otherwise we won’t have a pipeline to replace us and we’re not getting any younger.

“We’re in a hurry to get the next generation ready to just sail in the F50 and take it on.”