How Norway scores so much Olympic gold
Posted by Dean Holden at February 10th, 2014
by Ellen Emmerentze Jervell, 8 February 2013 Lotte Lie is one of Meråker sports school’s most talented biathletes. She is aiming her rifle at a target 50 meters away during her workout at one of the mountains that surround Meråker town.
MERÅKER, Norway—The distinct smell of animal feces and soil fills the air. A slender figure, barely illuminated by a white ceiling lamp, bends down and strokes the head of a large sow. “You are a good pig, aren’t you?” Jan Thomas Jenssen, 17, says softly.
Then he straightens up, pulls down his gray woolen sweater, and heads off to train for cross-country skiing. “My plan is to become a farmer, like my dad and his dad before him. But first things first.”
Though too young for the Sochi Games, Jan Thomas is considered a strong prospect for future Olympic glory. His most impressive credential may not be his technique or recent competitive success, but his birth certificate. He was born in the region of Trøndelag, a place with short summers of potato farming and long winters of trudging through snow-filled valleys and ice-covered fiords, and where Olympic gold is produced at a remarkable rate.
In all, Trøndelag natives have produced more than a fifth of Norway’s medals over the history of the Winter Games—even though the region accounts for only 8% of the country’s total population. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, they contributed to eight of the country’s nine gold medals.
“How is it possible that an area of about 400,000 people can be responsible for eight out of nine gold medals?” said Stig Arve Sæther, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
Norway itself is a Winter Olympics marvel: With only five million people, it has won 303 Winter Olympic medals, far more than any other country on the planet. To find a country smaller than world-leading Norway on the all-time Winter Olympics medal table, you have to travel down to Croatia, which ranks 24th with 11 medals.
And this month, Norway is fielding one of its strongest teams in almost two generations, with some experts considering it the favorite to win both the highest gold and total medal count, a feat that it last achieved in 1968.
Other countries long ago took to shrugging off Norway’s Winter Olympics medal haul as the unsurprising inheritance of a people whose young are born with skis on their feet, as an old Nordic adage goes. But skiing is also fundamental to the culture of other Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, which has about twice the population but, with 132 total, not even half the medals.
Instead, many experts think the answer lies in the culture and lifestyle of the country, where an extraordinary egalitarianism runs through youth sports. Before age 6, Norwegian kids can only train but not formally compete in sports, and before age 11, all children participating in a competition must be awarded the same prize.
“We have an unusually open and inclusive environment when it comes to children’s’ sports,” says Inge Andersen, General Secretary of the Norwegian Sports Federation and Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Sports, meanwhile, continues to take a back seat to education in the country. Although Norway has government-run sports schools, admissions is based on stiff academic standards, not athletic ability.
“General education has to come first. Sports second,” said Kjell Lundemo, the principal of Meråker, a government-run sports school with the same name as the town.
To some degree, Norway’s dominance isn’t surprising. Although its athletes generally don’t get huge endorsement dollars, they do benefit from the largess of the country’s main organization for elite Olympic sports, which has a relatively large annual budget of $23 million.
Norway also boasts an economy that provides high-paying jobs. Thanks largely to its rich oil fields, Norway has a per capita GDP of $99,558—the fourth-highest in the world behind Qatar, Luxembourg and Singapore. That enables its citizenry to enjoy extraordinary amounts of leisure time and spending money.
It is also clear that Norway has skated to Olympic stardom on a type of ski that doesn’t generate as much interest or competition. Of Norway’s 303 Winter Olympics medals, 125 have come in cross-country or its cousin, biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and sharpshooting. Together, these two disciplines are the Games’ medal-richest sports, awarding 66 medals in Sochi.
They are also among the least competitive. Throughout the history of the Winter Games, Norway and Germany have won nearly half the medals in biathlon. In cross-country skiing, Norway and four other countries have won 82% of the medals. A 2011 survey (conducted for Norway’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten) showed that 60% of Norwegians say they are interested in watching cross-country skiing, while 56% say they are interested in biathlon and 43% say they are interested in soccer.
In America, where Winter Olympics marketing invariably features daredevil sports like alpine skiing and snowboarding, little interest exists in watching or participating in cross-country skiing. The U.S. hasn’t won a cross-country skiing medal since 1976. Not even four million Americans engaged in cross-country skiing last year, fewer than half the number that skied downhill.
For that reason, Norway’s projected success in Sochi doesn’t surprise Aksel Lund Svindal, a Norwegian Alpine skiing world champion. “When the best talent goes into sports that the U.S. doesn’t hear about,” he said, “it makes sense” that Norway would do well.
Olympic history is rich with the medal-winning feats of one-time slacker nations that decided to get serious about the Games. A dramatic recent example is China, a longtime laggard that won the gold medal count at the Beijing Summer Games in 2008. Similar improvements in the Winter Olympics were achieved by Canada and America.
But from the beginning, Norway ruled the Winter Games. At the inaugural Winter Olympics in France in 1924—only 19 years after Norway gained its independence from Sweden—the relatively young nation won 17 of 44 total medals, including five medals in cross-country skiing. In five of the following six Winter Games, Norway won both the gold and overall medal counts.
That success was slowed when the Soviet Union jumped into the games in 1956. But by the late 1980s, flush with oil money, Norway established Olympiatoppen, an organization with responsibility for the country’s elite sports. In the six Winter Games since 1988, with the Soviet Union fading, Norway has won 53 gold medals, second only to Germany.
Still, most experts say the biggest reason behind Norway’s success is the culture that propelled it atop the medal table from the outset. Norway’s cities are relatively close to the wilderness, and children are encouraged to play outdoors even on the coldest days.
Neighboring Sweden, by contrast, has its major population centers farther from the wilderness, and the Swedes are more inclined to play indoor sports in the winter, such as tennis or hockey, rather than bundle up and go skiing.
Norway remains a largely agrarian society that places a large premium on being outside. A Norwegian concept called friluftsliv—enjoying outdoor life—has been studied in books and represents whole areas of study at universities.
Nowhere is this concept more valued than in Trøndelag, a region still dominated by farming and logging. Here, work comes first, but sport builds out of it. The hardship and solitude imposed by farming represents good training for cross-country skiing, an endurance sport that requires an extraordinary ability to withstand pain. “In childhood, I had to participate in physical work,” said Petter Northug, a 28-year-old cross-country skier and a Trøndelag native who won four medals, including two gold, at the 2010 Games and who could reach the podium five times at the Sochi Games.
Scholars who have studied Trøndelag cite its long tradition of outdoor work and play. “I don’t think people in Trøndelag have special genes or anything, but they have used skis for transportation and labor for ages,” said Sverker Sörlin, a Swedish professor who wrote “The Genius Body,” a book about the region’s legacy in winter sports. “Nothing is as prestigious as being a great skier. People are so rich in this country; they can do whatever they want. But they still end up skiing.”
The tightknit nature of the community also helps. Researchers working at NTNU found that almost all the Olympic winners from Trøndelag have been raised in towns with very few inhabitants who avidly root for their offspring. Small towns can force kids to embrace solitude. “I learned how to thrive in my own company and thus I still love to go on long training rides on my own,” says Mr. Northug, who was raised a farm in a town of fewer than 200 people.
Like small-town denizens everywhere, athletes in Trøndelag face limited competition in their native towns. “You may call it a ‘big-fish, little-pond effect’—individuals are more likely to develop positive self-assessment in small communities,” said Mr. Sæther, the NTNU researcher.
The small-town vibe is threaded through daily life at Meråker, the sports school with 250 high school and college students in the heart of Trøndelag. When one of its students is off competing in races, teachers take a break from the regular curriculum so no one falls behind, helping keep the dropout rate below 1%. While winning has come to be expected, race results aren’t the focal point.
“It’s good to come back after a race after you’ve won because no one makes a fuss out of it,” said Lotte Lie, 18, a biathlete who has won the Norwegian Cup. She spends between 10 and 18 hours a week on physical workouts, including lying on her stomach in the snow with skis on her feet and a rifle in her hands, aiming at targets about 55 yards away. “I’m trying to think that not winning is OK,” she said. Still she remains focused on the long term. “I have a very clear goal of winning the Olympics.”
“ Scholars who have studied the Trøndelag region cite its long tradition of outdoor work and play. ”
Mr. Lundemo, the principal, says the school’s emphasis on academic prowess only makes sense, given the odds of Olympic glory for any one student. “When these kids start at our school, we know that very many want to become world champions,” he said. “But we also know that very few—maybe none of them—will make it.”
At the Sochi Olympics, athletes from Trøndelag are favored to win as many as 30 medals in five different sports: cross-country, biathlon, nordic combined, ski jump and snowboard.
In those disciplines, attaining world-class status typically takes years of training. This is one reason that the Meråker school accepts students whose passion for sport may outshine their performances. In the long run, desire and perseverance will play the greatest roles in shaping future Olympians. The school’s coaches say the main lesson they teach is the importance of training relentlessly for years beyond high school.
“Endurance sports take years to become good at,” said Frode Estil, a Trøndelag native and former Olympian who won two gold medals in cross-country at the Salt Lake City Games and two silver medals at the Turin Games. Having coached at Meråker after retiring as an Olympian, Mr. Estil adds, “You know, we can’t tell who’s going to become a World Champion when they’re this young.”
For his part, Jan Thomas Jenssen, the 17-year-old cross-country skier, is a Meråker student regarded as a potential future star. In January, he took first place in a junior cross-country skiing competition at the Norwegian Cup. Growing up in the tiny town of Hommelvika in Trøndelag, Jan Thomas worked and skied on the family farm and in the forest, under the tutelage of his father.
In addition to physical work on the farm in the afternoons, weekends and holidays, he was regularly charged with what his father refers to as “incredibly boring stuff,” like picking stones from a field, just to improve his psyche.
Every time he hurt himself, his father would tease him until he stopped crying. Eventually, he came to believe pain is cool. “My father taught me at an early age to tackle pain—I think that’s my strength. I can go for hours in pain without giving up,” he said.
His childhood mentor, a star skier turned coach named John Thomas Rena, agrees. “I think a big part of Jenssen’s talent comes from the way he grew up,” he said.
In Hommelvika, the local ski club is thriving. Here, no pursuit is more honorable than cross-country skiing. Nearly everyone in the community volunteers at local ski clubs. Coaches often are parents or grandparents or local tradesmen who also happen to be former Olympic stars. A local saying has it that you’ll meet a world champion on every street corner in Trøndelag. “To ski in the same tracks as Olympic winners of course has a big impact on us,” said Ms. Lie, the biathlon athlete. “It makes us believe that it’s possible to reach our goals.”
The Meråker sports school accepts students from all over Norway, but a third of them are born and bred here in Trøndelag. And that third is disproportionately represented in the school’s athletic bona fides. Of the 14 Winter Olympics medals won by Meråker graduates, natives of Trøndelag have accounted for eight.
—Matthew Futterman contributed to this article.