When the Winter Olympics start next month in Beijing, there will be plenty of upsets and surprises. But there’s one thing you can count on: The country most likely to top the medal standings won’t be the United States, Russia or Canada, it will be Norway – again.
If you think that’s going out on a limb, consider that Norway has won more Winter Olympic medals – 368 – than any other country, including 132 golds. At the last Games, in 2018, Norway finished first with a record 39 medals – 10 more than Canada, which had its best Games ever and came third, behind Germany. And Norway is expected to do even better in China, possibly taking home 45 medals, according to a recent forecast from U.S.-based Gracenote Sports.
And if you think this small Nordic country is only good at events on ice and snow, think again. Norwegian athletes are among the very best in a host of summer pastimes. Casper Ruud is the world No. 8 in tennis, Viktor Hovland is a top 10 golfer, soccer player Erling Haaland is considered one of the best young strikers anywhere, and Magnus Carlsen has been ranked No. 1 in chess for 11 years. And who can forget one of the standout moments from last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, when Norway’s Karsten Warholm smashed his own world record in the 400-metre hurdles, and Jakob Ingebrigtsen continued his dominance of middle-distance races by winning the 1,500 metres? Heck, a Norwegian duo even won gold in men’s beach volleyball.
So how does Norway do it? How can a country of 5.3 million people – roughly one-third the population of Ontario – produce such a wealth of talent?
It starts with a radically different approach to sports that’s based on a concept known as the “Joy of Sport for All.” While Canadians and Americans stream kids who display potential into elite teams at an early age, Norway keeps the focus on participation.
Children are encouraged to play as many sports as possible, and costs are kept low for parents. Clubs aren’t allowed to keep league standings or even record game scores for children under 13, and there are no individual rankings, travelling teams or national championships for that age group. It’s all covered in Norway’s “Children’s Rights in Sport,” a 12-page document that says “children should receive a positive experience every time they participate in sport.”
Promising teenagers can specialize in a chosen event and receive high-calibre coaching. But even talented teens often dabble in a variety of sports and remain attached to their local club. Warholm didn’t concentrate on the hurdles until he was 20 and spent years competing in decathlon.
Clubs form the backbone of sports in Norway. There are more than 12,000 across the country and all are run almost entirely by volunteers. Families often ski, skate or play games together and pitch in with fundraising. Surveys show that 80 per cent of Norwegians belonged to a club during their childhood and roughly half of all teenagers are active club members.
And unlike Canada, Norway has only one national sports organization, the Norwegian Confederation of Sports. It oversees 55 sports federations as well as the Norwegian Olympic Committee, the Paralympic Committee and the Special Olympics. Everything is largely funded by a national lottery, Norsk Tipping, which earmarks 64 per cent of its proceeds to sports, roughly $400-million annually. Lottery-ticket buyers can also donate 7 per cent of their betting stake to a chosen club.
“The Norwegian mentality is that you should give kids a chance to be kids,” said Tor-Arne Hetland, a national cross-country ski coach and Olympic gold medalist. “In many countries the parents will drive the kids to training. In Norway it’s often the parents will train together with the kids.”
Hetland, who won gold in cross-country skiing at the 2002 Olympics, tried almost every sport as a kid, including sprinting, discus, javelin and soccer in addition to skiing. “We played soccer in summer and skied in the winter. That was pretty normal and still is,” he said.
He also explained that, even at the elite level, coaching is far less rigid in Norway than in many other countries. “If you teach the skill set and the passion, then the athletes develop themselves,” he said. “Athletes are partly coaching themselves with coaches more as mentors and less as dictators.”
It wasn’t always like this. Norwegian sport faced a moment of truth in 1988 after the country won just five medals – three silver, two bronze – at the Calgary Olympics and finished 11th. The poor showing prompted a rethink of athlete development and greater collaboration between the government and clubs. It also led to the creation of an elite sports centre called Olympiatoppen, which paid more attention to training high-performance athletes.
By the time Norway hosted the Olympics in 1994 in Lillehammer, the country was back among the top three and won 26 medals, including 10 gold. Since then it has topped the medal standings at the Games in 2002, 2014 and 2018. It also started to see success at the Summer Games. Vebjorn Rodal won the men’s 800 metres at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and the women’s team won gold in soccer at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
“There really was a change in the whole thinking when we got the Games in 1994 in Lillehammer,” said Inge Andersen, a former secretary-general of the Confederation of Sports. “Because then we had the goal that we should be the best nation in 1994, and it did something really good for the whole sport movement in Norway. We have been stronger and stronger ever since.”
Andersen said Norway also hasn’t veered from its concept of participation and equal access to sports. “Young people in Norway, they have the possibilities to try a lot of different sports, and at the end of the day they can choose by themselves,” he said. “It’s not the coach or father or mother that are choosing for them.”
Tore Ovrebo, the director of Olympiatoppen, said that while he’s confident about Norway’s chances in China, he doesn’t have a medal target. “We have high expectations and we do believe that it’s going to be a good Games for Norway,” he said. “Our job is to support the athletes to achieve their best – and then we count medals.”
Ovrebo’s Olympic career – he competed in rowing at the 1988 Games – typifies the Norwegian model. He grew up playing soccer and European handball. At the age of 13, he accompanied a friend to a rowing club that was stacked with Olympic athletes. They quickly became his mentors and coaches and threatened to kick the teenager out if he neglected his studies.
“That’s the huge difference,” he said. “In Norway, it’s like we’re developing citizens and not only athletes.”