I doubt that Barack Obama includes Denmark among his favourite sports event venues. The Danish capital Copenhagen, after all, was the scene in 2009 of Chicago’s stunning exit from the race to host next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games, even though the US President jetted in hoping to help the Windy City to victory.
Outside the White House though, a growing body of opinion now sees this small European nation, perched on top of Germany like the logo on the bonnet of an old Mercedes-Benz, as a leading player in this peculiar branch of the marketing industry.
And, as its reputation has grown, so event hosting has emerged as one of a number of poles of excellence that have steadily transformed Denmark’s image from a byword for blue cheese and bacon to a beacon of civilised living.
At a time when so many countries appear to have concluded that hosting events, particularly mega-events, is not worth the trouble, the nation of Noma and the Little Mermaid provides a striking counter-example of an entity that has successfully used the activity to help carve out a better place in the world.
So I was pleased to be able to sit down recently with Lars Lundov, chief executive of Sport Event Denmark (SED), to attempt to understand some of the basics that set the organisation apart as such an impressive practitioner.
The first thing to point out is that Lundov, who has been doing this for two decades, is no-one’s idea of an identikit salesman with smooth patter and flashing teeth. I could more readily imagine him in one of those cult Scandinavian detective dramas. There are times when it seems he would rather direct my attention to a pertinent video or slide on his open laptop than listen to the sound of his own voice. Most of what he does say though is well worth listening to.
The main point that I take away is that part of the secret of Denmark’s success - the SED website claims the organisation has won more than 80 per cent of its international bid campaigns - is the balance struck between the tightness of SED’s focus on bringing international events to Denmark and the closeness of its cooperation with other agencies and stakeholders.
“I think our very strong focus on only doing what we are doing is important,” is the way Lundov puts it. “We are a small country, so we need to cooperate very closely between Sport Event Denmark, the national federation and the host city…We work closely together in the bidding process as well as the hosting process.”
There is another important balance to be struck between having the experience and discipline to ensure that ancillary services from security to loo cleaning are conducted efficiently, and the creativity to inject elements that make the events live in the memories of all those who experience them.
I will never forget spending the evening of October 1, 2009 in the glassed-in foyer of Copenhagen’s spectacular waterfront opera house with Pelé, Oprah Winfrey and representatives of just about every royal family in Europe, having attended the Opening Ceremony of the 121st International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session.
The example Lundov chooses comes from the bedrock Olympic sport of athletics.
“We try to take events to a higher level,” he tells me. “Last year in Copenhagen, we had the World Half Marathon Championships.”
Explaining how this was turned into a mass event with 30,000 runners, he goes on: “The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were so happy afterwards. Now next year it is in Cardiff and they will do the same.
“We were a kind of game changer. We try always to add value.”
His comments are borne out by an article on the IAAF website announcing the Danish capital as the first winner of the Athletics Better World award, given to mark excellence in social responsibility.
“The event will offer a unique mix of the world’s best elite athletes and 30,000 recreational runners,” said IAAF President Lamine Diack, speaking on the eve of the Copenhagen race. “The stars of our sport and normal citizens can now be heroes together. This event offers a new model for future organisers, allowing cities not only to reap the promotional benefits of staging a world championships but to directly connect people to it.”
This sort of innovative spirit is summed up in the SED slogan, “More Than a Host”, which reminded me of FC Barcelona’s famous “Més que un Club” motto, though Lundov said there was no connection.
When I ask about targeting, he says one priority is “popular Danish sports”, such as cycling, sailing and handball. This clearly contributes to keeping interest high among the local population, but also to inspiring spectators to practice sport themselves. “A very important element for the Danish Government is to try to activate the population into doing sport,” Lundov says.
He also confirms that bids are normally only lodged for events for which the country already possesses the necessary sporting infrastructure, an approach which keeps costs down, organisation relatively straightforward, and which should ensure that white elephants do not become a problem.
For a nation of fewer than 5.7 million people, the biggest events - the Olympics and FIFA World Cup - are deemed out of range, although UEFA President Michel Platini’s grand experiment in staging a Euro 2020 across the continent has opened the way for Copenhagen to host four matches of that European football championship.
Having said this, it has in the past occurred to me that Copenhagen and the nearby Swedish city of Malmö, birthplace of a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović, are the sort of neighbours one could envisage one day hosting a first Summer Olympics split between two countries.
Lundov, though, has read the text of the IOC’s Agenda 2020 reforms and concluded, like me, that “it is still very difficult to split an event evenly between two countries”.
Any sort of joint bid is thus “not a short-term thing, but perhaps in the longer run”. And no, he confirms without hesitation, Copenhagen will not be throwing its hat into the ring beside the likes of Hamburg and Boston for the Games of 2024.
For a body that has built such a sizeable reputation in its field, SED is disarmingly small: Lundov says it has just five full-time employees and an annual budget of some DKr25 million (£2.4 million/$3.8 million/€3.3 million).
Not far off three-quarters of this budget - DKr18 million (£1.8 million/$2.7 million/€2.4 million) - is used directly for subsidising events. Lundov says that if SED invests, say, DKr1 million (£97,200/$150,100/€133,800) in a tournament, the sum will be matched by the host city.
Far from focusing on Copenhagen, he says it is “important to us to secure events for all over the country”. The body was established in 2008 by the Danish Government and the Danish National Olympic Committee, and some Board members have specific regional interests. This philosophy has helped take major events to places such as Herning, Odense, Aarhus and Randers in recent times.
So low are these costs in relation to the potential benefits that it makes you wonder why all countries with similarly advanced levels of general infrastructure and education are not bidding strenuously for events capable of generating extra use for their sports facilities and displaying their cities in a positive, joyful light.
An economic impact study of one event alone - the 2011 International Cycling Union Road World Championships in Copenhagen - quantified the “total tourism economic turnover” generated by the Championship at some DKr232 million (£22.6 million/$34.8 million/€31 million), of which 76 per cent came from international tourists.
The number of bed-nights attributable to the event was put at 118,000 and the “derived effects” assessed at the equivalent of 262 full-time jobs and DKr72 million (£7 million/$10.8 million/€9.6 million) of tax revenue.
Having been directly funded by the Danish taxpayer in past years, Lundov discloses that SED has moved on to Lottery-based funding from the start of 2015.
He expects the organisation’s budget to remain at “more or less the same level”, while acknowledging that income could now fluctuate in line with ticket sales.
He says SED is not set targets year by year for generating a certain amount of added-value for the Danish economy. But it is hard to imagine that any other five-employee organisation can have done as much in recent times to burnish Denmark’s increasingly positive yet edgy image.