This is the second blog about a visit to Denmark to learn about education and the provision of sport and physical activity. The first blog is about the school system and provides more context for this piece.

5,700 teenagers performing at Landsstævne, in Svendborg.

For the past two years I’ve been investigating the future of sport and physical education. If we’re going to improve the wellbeing of young people, and indeed all of society, then sport and physical fitness have a central role to play. As part of this process I’ve been talking to various people from the Observatory for Sport Scotland, a think-tank that provides research and organises events to inform public debate and policy making. When I asked about best practice outside the UK, I was told that Denmark was well worth visiting. What follows is my learning from a trip to see Landsstævne, and I’m very grateful to Charlie Raeburn from OSS for arranging various meetings for me with key people in Danish sport and education. 

The Sports Analysis Institute (IDAN)

One of the key elements in Danish sport is the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (IDAN), which is a think tank that is funded by the Ministry of Culture, but has significant autonomy. It began in 2005 and is responsible for the Danish Institute for Non-Formal Education (Vifo) and also the Play the Game conference. Play the Game is fascinating; founded in 1997, it looks at ethical issues and controveries like doping and gambling, and it views sport as a vehicle for democracy. Attendees are typically investigative journalists, academics and policy makers. 

IDAN was instrumental in the creation of the Observatory for Sport Scotland. In fact, Henrik Brandt, who spent many years working at IDAN and now runs his own consultancy, was involved in OSS from the start. We have a long way to go in Scotland to provide the same level of community engagement and infrastructure that Denmark has, but if we’re going to get there OSS has a central role to play. OSS has no public funding, unlike IDAN, so in many ways we’re fortunate that it exists at all.

The Role of Sports Clubs – DGI

DGI is an organisation that covers a wide range of sports clubs across Denmark. For a country of 5.8 million people, it is incredible that DGI supports 6,400 member clubs across 14 regions. That’s a staggering 1.65m Danes who are affiliated to a local club with DGI membership, about a quarter of the population. Danes spend on average 800 euros a year on sport and physical fitness, and the sector is worth about 2% of GDP. This network of clubs is run by around 100,000 volunteers which underscores the Danish emphasis on community. In fact, if you look at DGI’s values you see that ‘a sense of community’ is first on the list. Volunteering is so important that Mogens Kirkeby, vice president of DGI, told me that “if you lose one volunteer you lose ten participants. If you gain one volunteer, you gain ten more people.”

DGI is a big organisation; it has an annual turnover of 90 million euros and supports physical activity for all ages, which is vital in a society that values life-long engagement in sport and wellbeing. That starts early; some 80% of Danish children will become a member of a sports club before before the age of 12. This isn’t even the whole picture; in addition and complementary to DGI there is DIF, the association of 62 national governing bodies, which represents a total over 9,000 clubs. Most clubs are affiliated to both DIF (historically representing English sport) and DGI (historically representing rural gymnastics). An example of this is the football club IF Lyseng which has 1,700 members.

The International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA)

Mogens is also President of ISCA which has its headquarters in Copenhagen. It began in 1995 and is an international network of 260 sporting organisations across 89 countries on all continents. The values that are inherent in Danish sport can also be seen in ISCA, such as the idea that sport is a driver of community and democracy. It provides support and advocacy for members around their core purpose of “moving people”. It is a broad umbrella group that is really about physical activity, so organised sport is a subset of that. Through ISCA, Denmark exports its philosophy of wellbeing and thought leadership around the globe. One of the most consistent beliefs I came across was the importance of exchanging ideas for the common good. 

The Role of the State and Governing Bodies

It’s worth noting the role that the state plays in this. There is autonomy for the various organisations described here, but there is significant state funding for DGI and the national governing bodies (see part 1 about Danish boarding schools and folk school movement). The commitment to sport as a part of national wellbeing, and the multi-party support for funding this, is central to the national philosophy of creating a sense of belonging and civil participation. Local authorities are charged with supporting clubs for children and youth and through access to or subsidies for local sports facilities, and this is all enshrined in legislation. For example, all state schools must make their facilities available to clubs after the end of the day and throughout weekends and holidays. Local authorities have also been tasked with providing support for marginalised communities to get involved.

In my visit to Oure School I saw two interesting examples of this. One was the Danish Football Association’s funding for their new impressive new football facility. Yet there was also a contrary example. Their golf programme was struggling so they approached the national governing body for guidance and support, and got nothing back. What did they do? They turned their hand to other sports that did get buy-in, in this case mountain-biking and sailing. If you look carefully at the shape of the building in this photo of Oure’s biking centre, you can see what it used to be – a golf driving range.

There is a salutary lesson here for governing bodies everywhere; ignore the grass roots at your peril. And for schools, Michael Sørensen was very clear about the significance of values. “The first thing you should ask a governing body is about their values. If they align with yours, you can work with them.”

Landsstævne

DGI runs an event every four years called Landsstævne. This is a huge sports meeting that lasts for a week and in 2022 the turnout was 25,000, which put quite a demand on the town of Svendborg and its population of 27,000. Of the attendees some 50% are under the age of 23, so this is a real mixture of children and adults. The oldest participants were in their 80s. 

Landsstævne means ‘gathering’ and the first one to take place in Denmark was in 1935 at Ollerup (which is a short distance from Svendborg). That attracted 14,000 people who built a village consisting of 1,000 tents. Sports that were offered back then included handball, football, gymnastics, swimming, diving and folk dancing. Those are all still part of the modern Landsstævne, but of course it has evolved – there are 30 sports on offer and eSports are now a big attraction. This is really a ‘grassroots Olympics’ and similar festivals can be found in Germany, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. The traditions that underpin these events go back to the early 19th century when such organised physical activity was actually seen as a challenge to the state, until eventually it became a fundamental part of civil society. 

A key part of the philosophy of Landsstævne is that people play against each other in these sports, but there are no medals or trophies. There is no podium. It is simply about the joy of being active and competing for fun. There is no structure to the games, in the sense of a draw or a league, it’s just about signing up to get involved and challenging another club or team to a match. There were over 700 football matches played this week and not a single prize was handed out. I was told, quite simply, that “you are not honoured by winning.” Danes really do see sport as a form of democracy, and this is what it looks like in practice. 

The culmination of Landsstævne is a performance by 5,700 pupils from 60 boarding schools across the country (for the Danish approach to boarding, which is very different to the UK, see part 1 of this blog). They were accompanied by no fewer than 739 teachers. This event is their Year 9 and 10 (i.e. age 15-17) graduation. They perform an incredible hour-long set of live instrumental music, singing, dancing, and gymnastics in front of an audience of over 10,000 people in a circular arena. The fact that there is no such thing as a ‘best seat in the house’ again takes you back to the democratic values that underpin all of this. The arena is more or less the same size and structure as it was in the 1930s, sitting on a big bank of earth that was made by volunteers. 

The performance is incredible; I have no idea how you would go about choreographing something on this scale. There are dozens of routines and several costume changes. At the end, a video is played on the big screens on the stage of the week that the teenagers have had. They stand around, arm in arm, watching with a mixture of smiles and tears at the friendships they have made. Rather than take a curtain call and bask in the glory, they instead share a moment of community before departing the arena. As we leave, I can hear them all over the bank cheering and shouting at what they have achieved together. 

The event finale, as participants watch a video of their week together.

Reflection: Creating Communities and the Centrality of Values

We talk a lot about values but we are faced with the ever present challenge of praxis. How do we take core values and turn them into practice in what we do in sport? My main takeaway from Denmark was exactly that. The ethos and philosophy that drives what Danes do has been developed for around 200 years and is reflected in the structures at government and grassroots level. The world was deeply moved by Danish footballers standing around Christian Eriksen on the pitch at the Euros, but in fact this was automatic for those players. It is the culture they were raised in. The culture we build in British sport needs to do exactly the same. Community must come first.

Thank you to…

The incomparable Charlie Raeburn for facilitating my visit, and everyone at OSS for their contribution to Scottish sport and society. I was very fortunate to be able to interview Troels Rasmussen (CEO of IDAN), Henrik Brandt (a consultant and formerly of IDAN, and supporter of OSS), Mogens Kirkeby (Vice Chair of the DGI and President of ISCA), Simon Roslyng (DGI facilities adviser) and Michael Sørensen (Oure Kostgymnasium). I also met many other sports analysts and academics from Italy and Germany who were a pleasure to speak to as well. Any errors in these posts are entirely mine.

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One thought on “The Danish Way of Life 2: Sport and Physical Activity

  1. Thanks for your article. Very important that we learn from other communities. I encourage that via my work as a psychologist. I have studied more than 500 amazing achievers – Einstein, Curie, Mandela etc – and now encourage students to develop ‘can do spirit’ which was the key factor amongst amazing achievers. For info on our work and links with yours please see http://www.amazingpeopleschools.com
    Cheers, Charles Margerison

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