Published 2021-02-18

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Pandemic challenges and scope for sport and outdoor life

Spending more time in natural surroundings, ‘hybrid events’, but also diminished joy and a struggling economy: the coronavirus pandemic has affected sport and outdoor life alike. It has brought both challenges and opportunities, as three studies from Mistra Sport & Outdoors show.

Two weeks after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mistra Sport & Outdoors research programme started. Its aim is to generate knowledge and solutions for sustainable sport and outdoor life. Instead of seeing the virus as an obstacle, the researchers regarded it as an opportunity to gather interesting data for the programme’s planned research to build on. Once the coronavirus pandemic was a fact, the programme board quickly decided to grant funding for three new projects. The three studies were released to coincide with a webinar in early February.

Work on the study Idrotten och friluftslivet under coronapandemin – resultat från två undersökningar om coronapandemins effekter på idrott, fysisk aktivitet och friluftsliv (‘Sport and outdoor life during the coronavirus pandemic — results from two surveys on the effects of the pandemic on sport, physical activity and outdoor life’) was led by Susanna Hedenborg, Professor of Sport Sciences at Malmö University, and Peter Fredman, Professor of Tourism Studies at Mid Sweden University and Programme Director of Mistra Sport & Outdoors. The study was based on questionnaires as well as interviews.

In general, cancelled activities have caused a reduction in sporting pursuits during the pandemic. Numerous sports have been replaced by other physical activities and gone from indoors to outdoors. However, there are major differences among age groups and types of sport: some activities have been practicable more or less as usual, with recommendations, while others have been changed, some have been cancelled, and many competitive events have been affected.

Susanna Hedenborg, Professor of Sport Sciences and Associate Professor of Economic History at Malmö University.  PHOTO: Håkan Röjder

‘Varying circumstances have had a major influence. For example, Lycksele had snow until mid-May, so the gymnastics association had difficulty adjusting. Some say the members’ motivation was lost when the social side — the very basis of sport — disappeared. For clubs and associations, but also the individual sports enthusiasts, the changes have also called for new materials and tools to be purchased. There’s been crowding in nearby outdoor surroundings, and people have had to travel alone and avoid public transport to practise their sports,’ Hedenborg concludes.

Digitisation has been important for sport, and saves both time and money spent on travel. Not only training, but also competitions have taken place digitally. Hedenborg highlights races where contestants record their times online, and horse riding, where participants have been assessed remotely.

Young people aged 16‒20 have been hardest hit, and one in three in this age group has been less active during the pandemic. Researchers are concerned about the consequences, and support is needed for young people to get started again.

Since the great majority of competitions have been affected, there have been major repercussions on spectators and supporters. Hedenborg points out that clubs and associations are deeply concerned about the future, financial consequences of cancelled events over a long period and loss of members.

‘Many have lost 30‒40 per cent of their members. For 2020, most people had already paid their membership fees, but what’s going to happen now, in 2021? Elite football clubs are wondering whether the spectators will return. The national management has also been criticised and perceived as confusing and having created uncertainty.’

But, according to Hedenborg, there are also associations and sports enthusiasts who witness to positive effects. When children’s activities take place without spectators, pressure from parents decreases; and smaller competitions leave more time for training.

Freedom, socialising and outdoor hype

The same study also looked at COVID-19’s impact on outdoor life. Here, open-air activities have shown a clear rising trend , most of all among those who were previously least active outdoors, during the pandemic. Teleworking, the fact that activities have been cancelled or moved to the local area, redundancies and unemployment have meant more time for outdoor life, explains Daniel Wolf-Watz, a researcher at Mid Sweden University and one of the authors.

‘Outdoor recreation has also made social life possible. But the hype surrounding outdoor activities is also mentioned: tips and inspiration about them have become popular in traditional and social media. Outdoor life has also felt like an opportunity to experience freedom, in an otherwise rather limited existence.’

At the same time, the study shows that people in risk groups who live in major cities have been adversely affected by the rise in popular interest in outdoor recreation. More congestion on footpaths, and in parks, has prompted them to limit their time outdoors.

Like sport, outdoor recreation has become more local, while there has simultaneously been heavy pressure on hotspots such as Kebnekaise in the far northwest and the Jämtland mountains in western Central Sweden. This means that people with more experience of outdoor activities have discovered new places to explore.

‘We can also see that organised outdoor life has declined, while the importance of green areas has risen, during the pandemic. Public transport has been superseded by more car journeys and some cycling, and there are indications of higher consumption of materials and equipment,’ Wolf-Watz concludes.

What is free of charge in nature?

The Public Participation Geographic Information System (PPGIS) study Friluftslivet under coronapandemin – Kartläggning av friluftsvanor och vistelse i naturen under coronapandemin i Västra Götaland (‘Outdoor life during the coronavirus pandemic — a survey of outdoor habits and stays in nature during the pandemic in West Götaland’), based on 1,500 questionnaire respondents’ independent replies detailing their outdoor activities, also shows increased activity. Urban outdoor life — that is, natural surroundings a short distance from home — in particular has risen in importance. Many of the results are recognisable from the second study — people seeking nature to socialise and for recuperation, for example.

Linus Kron, head of Västkuststiftelsen (the ‘West Coast Foundation’), recognises himself in the above description, and raises questions about both short-term and long-term needs.

‘This puts new demands on managers of natural areas. A firewood store that normally used to be filled once a quarter now needs replenishing weekly. That raises the question of what’s cost-free in nature and what isn’t. Overcrowded parking spaces challenge us too. How can we meet needs without jeopardising our natural environment?’

Hybrid events — a future solution

The coronavirus pandemic has also had a direct, destructive impact on events. Four out of five events have suffered significant income losses. This is shown in Covid-19 och hållbara evenemang – Påverkan, anpassning och framtid för evenemang inom idrott och friluftsliv (‘COVID-19 and sustainable events — Impact, adaptation and future of events in sport and outdoor life’), a study conducted within the framework of the ‘Sustainable Events’ theme in Mistra Sport & Outdoors. The study is based on data material from the Swedish Sports Confederation, Visit Stockholm and Göteborg & Co, but also a questionnaire survey of the Swedish public investigating both supply and demand.

Robert Pettersson, researcher at Mid Sweden University PHOTO: Annacarin Aronsson

Robert Pettersson, Associate Professor at Mid Sweden University, notes that events account for much of sports organisations’ revenue. In their study, he and his colleagues have deconstructed the material to analyse how various types of association have been affected, but also what the organisers are doing to meet the challenges.

‘Most have taken steps like cutting their range of activities and reviewing costs. Many associations also highlight softer values ​​and challenges that don’t concern financial aspects, like declining membership, reduced integration, repercussions on physical and mental health, and loss in terms of fun and fellowship represented by cancelled events.’

Pettersson states that it is striking, and perhaps also discouraging, that many associations fail to adapt and digitise their offerings. Only a fifth express an interest in holding digital events in the future. The idea of hybrid events (combining physical and virtual participation) has also been raised. Such events could mean reduced travel and environmental impact. But sporting events are also closely connected with lifestyle and quality of life.

‘What’s more, it’s not just the start of the Vasaloppet ski race that’s important, but the training for other seasonal activities. We can ponder a future with more events but geographically distributed, with fewer participants at more events, and hybrid ones that may bring about changes in how stadiums are used. In transition efforts, it’s important to focus on resilience, digitisation and sustainability. And more knowledge is needed, too,’ Pettersson concludes.

Within Mistra Sport & Outdoors, there are plans for follow-up studies.

The complete reports, recorded presentations and other documents from the webinar are available at