Norway’s 39 Olympic medals

A thousand years ago, they wreaked havoc across the British Isles, plundering gold, burning villages and ransacking churches. Legends portray the marauding pagans as swift and merciless, prompting the quivering Celtic monks to pray: “Deliver us O Lord, from the fury of the Northmen.” Those heathen Vikings are now Christian and peaceful, but they recently went back home with a cache of gold, envied by the world. Norway, a tiny country of 5.2 million people, topped the Winter Olympics in Korea, also creating history with a record haul of 39 medals, including 14 golds. The three highest individual Olympic medal winners are also Norwegian.

What accounts for Norway’s astounding success? Strong and well-muscled, Norwegian athletes look like cyborgs from outer space. Nutrition and fitness rank high in this rich country. Viking ancestry probably embeds swiftness in their DNA. There is plenty of snow in Norway. And, top athletes compete in biathlon and cross-country skiing, where they can win multiple medals. But, many of these factors apply to other top competitors like USA, Canada, and Germany that have populations many times larger than Norway.

Norway’s success comes from its unique socio-economic values, collective spirit and bottom-up system. Proud of their culture and determined to protect it from outside interference, Norwegians voted not once, but twice, to stay out of the European Union! Team spirit, trust, endurance, egalitarianism and inclusiveness are important, and are enshrined in politics, as in sports. There is zero tolerance for stars, divas and bad behaviour. Former olympic athlete Morten Aasen says, “We are a rich country, but we believe in the socialist way of doing things. Success comes from working hard and being together.”

Every citizen is entitled to play sports, so Norway builds sports facilities everywhere, while other countries consecrate malls. Office closes at 4 pm, enabling employees many hours daily to hike, kayak or ski. Children’s daily routine includes sports, but in the Norwegian system there are no winners or losers until they are 12. Kids have fun, enjoying rather than competing, and, 93 per cent of them enrol in the 11,000 local sports clubs. This broadens the talent pool. Tom Tvedt, the president of Norway’s Olympic Committee says, “Our medals come from athletes who started in local clubs.” If they show promise, they are taken to the elite sports centre called “Olympiatoppen”. And, then, the other reasons for Norway’s medal success kick in: world class facilities, training, coaching, sports science and technological innovation —for example, advanced skis.

Americans lament they fared poorly compared to Norway. American sportsmen follow the money trail created by golf, football, soccer, baseball and basketball. Athletes are insufficiently funded by the state. American figure-skater Adam Rippon, a bronze-medallist in this Olympics, tweeted that during his training “he was so broke” he stole apples from his gym to save money. But, Norway’s sports budget is also small, and athletes cannot live on state grants. They all have day time jobs as carpenters, plumbers, farmers and teachers.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

High performance comes from motivation fueled by love for their sport. “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet,” is a popular saying. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, the 21-year-old cross-country skier who won three gold medals epitomises this saying and the Norwegian system. His grandfather gifted him his first pair of skis when he was two years old, and, he belongs to the small Byåsen club in interior Norway. His name is unpronounceable, but, this six-feet-tall athlete has movie-star looks. No wonder, Donald Trump wants Norwegians to migrate to the US. They would also bring bushels of Olympic gold medals. A thousand years ago, and, 500 years before Christopher Columbus, Norwegians did land in America. But, they show no desire to migrate to Trumpland now.

Pratap is an author and journalist.