With another Winter Olympics in the books, we can once again swoon over Norway.
Look at all their medals. Thirty-seven. That’s 10 more than anyone else. And don’t even get us started about the golds. Sixteen! So many.
How many medals does Britain have? Two? They should hand out Sharpies at the closing ceremony so that all British athletes can cross the “G” out of “GBR.”
Norway and Norwegians seem lovely. They’re less offensively good-looking than Swedes and less offensively kinfolk than the Danes. They do more good than harm in the world.
They punch well above their population (five million and a bit) in a sporting context. There’s no doubt.
But this sudden need to talk about them like cold-weather super humans is a bit much.
“Why is Norway so good at the Winter Games?” CNN mooned.
“It’s Norway’s Games again,” panted The New York Times. “What’s its secret?”
Yes (rest of world throws itself down on the bed and begins twirling its legs in the air)! What’s your secret?
Well, it’s simple. Norway picked a sport no one else cares about. They got really good at it. And when the Olympics started giving out about a million medals for it, they industrialized their niche. Pretty romantic, right?
Norway is good at a few things, but it is Olympically engorged because of biathlon. Like it says in the brochure, nothing brings the world together in friendly competition like the combination of guns and skis.
In the late 1980s, there were nine biathlon medals given out. The sport was dominated at the time by the two countries that dominated all bizarro winter sports – the Soviet Union and East Germany.
By the turn of the century, two things had happened. The Communist sports machine fell apart and biathlon boomed. Because if you’re going to buy bullets, you may as well buy them in bulk.
Driven by five biathlon golds from Ole Einar Bjorndalen, Norway led the medal table for the first time at the 2002 Games.
Like a large man settling into a small couch, biathlon keeps expanding. We’re up to 33 medals in 11 events.
If the Norwegian biathlon team was its own country, it would sit ninth on the Beijing 2022 medal table. A dozen crack shots from reindeer country would rank ahead of all of Russia, all of France and all of Canada.
This proves the Norway’s administrative sports cunning, but I’m not sure it proves a whole lot athletically.
For a long time, Canada was to curling what Norway is to biathlon. During that short burst of Canadian hypercompetence (now long gone), it wasn’t possible to win more than two medals.
Theoretically, Norway can boss the entire biathlon podium nearly a dozen times at a Winter Games. It’s a medal factory.
There are other disciplines that present as many opportunities, but those sports can’t be sealed off from the rest of the world. Two or three competitors could win a bunch of times at speed skating or alpine skiing. But will they? Ask Mikaela Shiffrin how that worked out.
Domination of widely popular sports is unlikely and, if achieved, difficult to repeat. There is only one Michael Phelps in most generations. Often, there is no Michael Phelps.
But Norway’s hammerlock on biathlon is self-perpetuating. They get better because they are already great, and that greatness scares off potential competitors. Why plow resources into a sport you know you’re going to be beaten at?
This isn’t a knock on Norway. They’ve taken an organic advantage (Norwegians like watching and doing biathlon) and monopolized its production.
It’s a reliable formula for Olympic success. It’s doubtless a source of national pride. God knows that if they gave out 40 medals for Olympic crokinole and Canada won 30 of them, we’d never shut up about it.
But is figuring out a way to game the system “Olympic?” Is this the ideal?
Yes. It absolutely is.
We long ago left behind the idea that the competition is what matters at an Olympics. Winning is what matters. Front-page covers and branding opportunities are what matters. Sticking it in your neighbours’ eye is what matters.
For decades, the superpowers controlled this system for political ends. Did the world feel admiration when a bunch of pot-bellied, doped-up Soviet giants ran the table in weightlifting? No, it felt resentful and intimidated. That was the point.
The atomization of the East vs. West axis created an opening in the market. Norway has exploited it. But they don’t rub it in anyone’s face. They aren’t running around here shouting “NORGE” at the top of their lungs or dressing their attachés up in Viking horns. They wear their dominance lightly.
All the fawning over them comes from North American and European outlets looking to highlight someone cooler than America and more fun to talk to than Germany. They’re not wrong – as a general proposition, Norwegians are a little bit better than we are.
I’d rather it was them in Olympic charge than some beady-eyed autocracy running a kiddie production line (though nonsense is still thriving).
So Norway – king of the Winter Olympics. No problem.
But let’s not get carried away by notions of Norwegian robustness vis à vis everyone else. Winning an Olympics these days doesn’t say much about your national capability. It just means you have enough smarts, spare cash and free time to turn fripperies like Olympic medal tables into policy priorities of the state.
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