On the spot
Vice Mayor of the City of Antwerp,
responsible for sports,
diamond and markets & fairs
How did the city’s sport department face the pandemic and what kind of initiatives were implemented to stay connected with the population and keep people healthy?
We all took a heavy blow, but the city of Antwerp never throws in the towel. Early on, we launched several initiatives to encourage our citizens to get – and keep on – moving. During the initial lockdown we had to be even more creative, positive and solution-oriented to get the job done, but things turned out just fine thanks to the digital world we live in. People took it upon themselves to stay active at home by doing sports, exercising or even attempting challenges. Famous personalities in the world of sports, like judo champion and Olympic medal contender Matthias Casse, were the perfect ambassadors and took our citizens by the hand.
The results of a survey we conducted to get a good picture of the sporting needs, motivation and thresholds of our adult Antwerpians, confirmed that our citizens really have a taste for sports. This is why we pulled out all the stops to give a boost to the sports experience in Antwerp and decided to organise a full Summer of Sports. This included a variety of sports courses and Start to’s like Start to race bike, Start to ski, Start to wakeboard and so on. Thanks to the support fund of the city of Antwerp and the substantial contribution from the Flemish government, we could ease the financial pain and we were able to offer a wider range of sports than usual in summertime. We also reached out to and cooperated with local sports clubs and other partners to support them both financially and promotionally in setting up an accessible supply.
Our sports stunts at unique locations, such as yoga on water, step it up on the stands of the Olympic Stadium, roller skating on the tarmac of the Antwerp airport, et cetera, should have been the cherry on top, but unfortunately the resurgence of Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works. Although we had to adjust our high ambitions, we did our utmost to uphold an attractive and above all safe Summer of Sports, thereby giving our citizens a welcomed outlet in these challenging times.
What kind of measures have been taken for professional and clubs sports, both for athletes and fans?
In March we knew it would be impossible to avert a sanitary crisis, but we were facing an unknown enemy. All competitions were suspended to prevent worsening the situation. A decision made with a heavy heart, of course, but the national policymakers made the right call. The only call they could make, in my opinion.
In Belgium, the National Security Council defines the exit strategy in relation to the coronavirus crisis, in close consultation with the regional governments and a multidisciplinary expert group. In addition, several protocols were developed for various sectors, including the sports sector, to guarantee a safe start up. Within this framework, during the sequence of easing and strengthening measures and taking into account the corresponding relaxations and restrictions (e.g. sports bubbles, social distancing, no physical contact), the city of Antwerp did everything in its legal power to avoid a complete standstill.
At the end of July, the governor of the province of Antwerp imposed stricter Covid-19 measures as the case numbers were going up again in Antwerp. This decision threatened to jeopardise the start of the sports competitions – except professional football – but meanwhile all the sports activities have resumed, provided that the protocols are strictly followed.
With regard to the fans, the professional football teams agreed to play behind closed doors for now, but soon a limited number of fans will be allowed again. All other sports are subject to the protocol of the event industry: 100 fans indoor and 200 spectators outdoor. As of the first of September, these numbers will double, both indoor and outdoor. Whether or not we can increase the attendance, will depend on the epidemiological context, the decisions of the National Security Council resulting therefrom and the assessment of our mayor and the urban security cell.
How would you define this “new norm” that is being designed?
Difficult to say. Considering the variable epidemiological context, I think it’s simply too early to define this “new norm”. While scientists are working around the clock to develop a successful vaccine against Covid-19, it’s our duty, our responsibility, to reconcile the interests of sports with those of our health system.
The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: ‘citius’, ‘altius’, ‘fortius’ (faster, higher, stronger). In times of corona, I would like to add ‘sapientior’ (wiser). Let’s all outsmart Covid-19 and be more aware of the way we cope with and – out of necessity and at least temporarily – coexist with the virus, also in the area of sports. Never take life for granted. Therefore, we need everyone; every single one of us needs to bring out the best in themselves. Maybe the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games can be a source of inspiration. To quote IOC President Bach: “one hundred years after Antwerp hosted the Olympic Games, their spirit still teaches us that – by working together – we can overcome enormous challenges.” He took the words right out of my mouth.
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted Antwerp’s Olympic Centenary Celebration programme, which had to be postponed for obvious reasons. Celebrations will restart on September 12. What is new in your programme and how have you adapted to the situation? (e.g. connection with other events that give even more visibility to the celebrations?)
Due to the resurgence of the coronavirus we had to postpone our celebrations once again. We intended to use the Port of Antwerp Night Marathon on September 12th to breathe new life into Antwerp’s Olympic Centenary Celebration programme, but the current epidemiological context thwarts our plans. Although we have yet to set a date to pick up the threads, we are determined not to let our anniversary year pass by just like that. We have every intention to see the programme through and remind our citizens that Antwerp is and always will be an Olympic city.
One hundred years after the Olympic Games, how do you manage to connect the people with their history?
We campaigned in March so every citizen and tourist would be reminded of the fact that our city is one of the Olympic cities and has been for over a hundred years now. Moreover we created a new website full of heroic storytelling, the coolest sports facts, our pride of winning no less than 36 medals and of course the everlasting values of the Olympic Games: excellence, respect and friendship. I firmly believe that all Antwerpians have embraced the Olympic spirit and that they still embody these core values, whether or not unconsciously. It’s in our DNA.
Our large-scale campaign showed old video footage with a brand new promo video in contrast. And last but not least, we created a unique logo to propagate the 100th anniversary year, in collaboration with the IOC. This logo is a unifying element that shows up throughout the city and we use it in all of our communications about the anniversary activities.
As there is no living witnesses of this period anymore, how did you use the material, archives, artefacts, images to give a concrete face to the Games and help people to imagine, own and celebrate their Games? How did the process to get all this material work?
Admittedly, due to circumstances the Games were rather poorly documented. In the archive of the Belgian Olympic Committee only two boxes with information were kept. Luckily for us many Antwerpians are avid collectors. Once we spread the word that we were to celebrate our 100th anniversary as an Olympic city, many people contacted us and offered their help by sharing stories and lending us objects from that time.
Besides those treasures, we could rely on the expertise of professor Roland Renson. He’s a real authority when it comes to the history of sports, a true Olympic know-it-all and also honorary president of the renowned Sportimonium, the largest museum of sports in Belgium. Professor Renson and the museum staff provided us with invaluable information that contained exact numbers, names, data and other must-knows. The same Sportimonium organised Breaking Boundaries, an extensive exhibition about the Games in 1920. In Antwerp we managed to unroll extra indoor and outdoor exhibitions, guided walks and tours, interviews on the radio, documentaries on television and more.
As mentioned before, because of the coronavirus crisis all of our other plans for celebrating our anniversary year are put on hold. Once we overcome this terrible disease, we will reboot our programme of sports activities so everyone can participate eventually and experience that we are not just any city, but a real Olympic one. Few cities had the privilege of hosting the Olympic Games, the largest sporting event in the world and capturing the imagination of people from around the globe. The city of Antwerp is proud of its status as an Olympic city.
During several months, stress will be put on experiencing new sports in public areas. How are the anniversary celebrations integrated within Antwerp comprehensive sport and physical activity strategy and policy?
In our municipal sports policy, a broad participation of all layers of the Antwerpian community is of paramount importance. In a vibrant city like Antwerp, sports connect people and strengthens the community. We want our people to get excited about sports and thereby we try to give lesser known sports the attention they deserve. The city of Antwerp kept the memory of the Olympics alive and now, a century later, we reignite the Olympic flame and use this 100th anniversary as a powerful lever to promote sports and to encourage our citizens to get – and keep on – moving with a big campaign and an ambitious sporting calendar. In this way we underline our status as the undisputed sports capital of Flanders.
What do you expect in terms of both tangible and intangible legacy from the celebrations themselves?
The sports division of the city of Antwerp attaches high importance to well-defined standards and values. Values that are very similar to those of the Olympic Games. We stand for respect, friendship and togetherness and we strongly believe that through sports we manage to keep people happy and healthy and make them feel like an integral part of our community. Our anniversary year can be very helpful in highlighting those values. Beside organising a memorable sports calendar for everyone, we are working on a symbolic monument to eternalize the VIIth Olympiad in Antwerp. An indelible landmark and one every Olympic city has: the Olympic rings. And partly thanks to that masterpiece we hope our citizens will always be reminded of the Olympic Games in Antwerp, its values and the message of unity the Games sent to the world in the aftermath of World War I.