When we hear the word “event”, we tend to think of paper cups and energy-guzzling stadium lighting. But sustainable events have another – social – dimension. It looks at whether there is a discrimination-free space and whether human rights compliance has been achieved in the supply chains for sports equipment. It is this social dimension of sustainability that is in the spotlight at the Special Olympics. When the Special Olympics World Games were held in Germany for the first time in June 2023, 7,000 athletes from some 190 countries came together to compete in 26 different sports disciplines. In our interview with Wiebke Linnemann-Schweizerhof, Director of Events and Process Management, we find out more about social sustainability criteria and how an event like this can help to sensitise society.
How important were the Special Olympics World Games in Germany for your work?
So important that it is almost impossible to measure. The Games raised awareness of inclusion of people with disabilities beyond our wildest dreams. That was possible because of the event’s highly international character and the intense media interest.
How can an event like this promote inclusion?
It does so by creating awareness and confronting people with this issue in a positive way. This helps to break down barriers and overcome fears of engagement. These events show us all that people with disabilities are able to achieve far more than we might perhaps assume. In addition, sports events organisers are then inspired to create inclusive offers of their own. Another of our goals was to sensitise everyone we worked with.
How did you approach that task?
We ran sensitisation workshops at Berlin Airport and the railway stations, for example, and also provided them for hotels and security firms. We always tried to get the athletes involved. We didn’t want to be talking across them and telling people how to interact with them – we wanted to involve them in reaching out to people and building understanding that way. We raised the issue with suppliers as well: for example, when we talked to catering companies, we always asked if they had people with disabilities working for them already.
Which social sustainability criteria for events are important, in your view?
Accessibility is a key topic, of course, but it is also highly complex, which sometimes makes it difficult to put into practice. That’s because it covers aspects such as plain language, lifts and ramps, but it is also about interpreting events for people with a visual impairment. From our perspective, it is also crucial to involve people with disabilities in organising events and appoint them to decision-making bodies.
You also launched a programme for German local authorities to host delegations from all over the world. What was that experience like?
It was very positive. We had more local authorities applying to be host towns than we needed. And that also helped to advance inclusion by creating jobs, for example. And of course, it is important for this to continue after the Special Olympics World Games, with inclusion officers working in the local authorities over the longer term.
What role did the environmental dimension of sustainability play?
Our main emphasis is on the social dimension of sustainability. For example, we look at the working conditions in partner companies and whether they are paying the minimum wage. And we do everything we can to protect the environment and the climate. And all our accredited athletes, staff and volunteers could use local public transport free of charge. We also made it a priority to use companies and products from the local area, provide guidance and manuals in digital format only and encourage waste separation.
Thank you for talking to eco@work.
The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.
Talking to eco@work: Wiebke Linnemann-Schweizerhof, Director of Events and Process Management at Special Olympics Germany.
Special Olympics Deutschland e.V.
D-10115 Berlin, Germany
After studying Sports Science, English Literature and Social and Economic Psychology at the University of Göttingen, Wiebke Linnemann-Schweizerhof worked for the Austrian Paralympic Committee. She went on to become Deputy Head of Operations at the European Youth Olympic Festival Vorarlberg and Liechtenstein, Head of National Summer Games Hannover (Special Olympics Germany) and Austria House Manager Paralympics Rio 2016.
Wiebke Linnemann-Schweizerhof has been employed by Special Olympics Germany since autumn 2016, initially as Head of Events and since 2021 as Director of Events and Process Management. Her work covers a wide range of events, from trade fairs to parliamentary evenings, members’ meetings, workplace retreats and the National Games, as well as the Special Olympics World Games, which were first held in Germany in June 2023.