Editor’s Note: Norway has the population of Minnesota. But that that didn’t stop the tiny Scandinavian country from topping the medal standings at the recently completed Beijing Olympics, just as it did in 2018 at the PyeongChang Games. Indeed, this time, its athletes won a record 16 gold medals across six disciplines. The performance burnished Norway’s reputation as having the best sport system in the world, both in elite performance and making a meaningful contribution to communities and its democracy.
Followers of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative are familiar with a key feature of the Norwegian sport model, its Children’s Rights in Sports statement that guides the activities of sport bodies in the country, including its Olympic committee. Aspen drew upon the document’s principles in developing the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports, launched last year with the endorsement of more than 60 national organizations including the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
There are other pieces to the Norwegian sport model that also help explain its success. At the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics, we invited three architects of Norway’s sport system to share their insights. The below piece is authored by Inge Andersen, former Secretary General of the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport; Øyvind Sandbakk, the director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance; and Johann Olav Koss, four-time Olympic champion in speed skating and the founder of Right to Play and FairSport. —Tom Farrey
The world knows our country of 5.3 million inhabitants up by the North Pole is the superpower of winter sports. We also now have some of the best summer sport athletes, in soccer, track and field, triathlon and even beach volleyball. So we get asked: What’s the secret to Norway’s success?
The first thing to know — we weren’t always strong, even in winter sports. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, our results were poor. The entire model in Norway had to be reinvented. We started with the 1994 Winter Olympics that was hosted in Lillehammer and have continued to improve our approach to sports development since then. We recognized that the training that achieved gold medals in Lillehammer 1994 or in Vancouver 2010 would not be enough to win gold medals in 2022.
We have continually refined our approach to training athletes and sport development. Here are the seven most important elements:
1. Children’s Rights in Sports
Ninety-three percent of all Norwegian children and youths participate in organized sports during their childhood. Participation in sporting activities for children up to 12 years of age follows the Children’s Rights in Sports statement, which underscores the intrinsic value of playing sports and encourages experiences and skills that in turn provide the basis for a lifelong enjoyment of sports.
The resource has been updated several times, most recently in 2019. These rights and provisions are unique in a global context and are designed to help children have a positive experience every time they participate in training, competition or other activities. Children should feel safe, experience mastery and be allowed to influence their own activity. In fact, we are sure this is also the best background for those who later decide to take out their full potential as elite athletes.
2. The Establishment and Development of “Olympiatoppen”
Similar in some ways to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Olympiatoppen, based in Oslo, is much more than a sports center to develop athletes. Staff members at Olympiatoppen work closely with the university and college environments and facilitate learning within and across the environments in active sports in Norway.
The national investment in Olympiatoppen has been crucial for the development of a competency-based top sport program in Norway. The establishment of Olympiatoppen centers in eight locations in Norway has been key to the development and sustainability of success at the highest levels.
At the same time, we recognize that Olympiatoppen sits on the shoulders of a sports movement dominated by volunteer coaches and administrators across the country. The cooperation between community clubs and leaders driving elite sports is the jewel of the Norwegian performance culture.
3. A Shared Training Philosophy
To be the best in the world, you must train the best in the world. At the same time, the training philosophy in Norwegian sports involves taking responsibility for both the social, mental and physical development into being a top athlete. It’s about developing people!
As Norway’s top Olympic official, Tore Øvrebø, said recently to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, “In Norway, it’s like we’re developing citizens and not only athletes.”
There is therefore no tradition of cultivating child and youth stars. It is important for later development that children get to participate in sports, try many different sports, and let inner joy govern the sports choices made during adolescence.
4. The National Team Model
The sport federations and Olympiatoppen have been adamant that the best athletes train with the national team. Individual sport is a team game and being a member of a team means a lot for the inner motivation to invest and put in the training hours needed to become the best in the world.
The national teams reflect the Norwegian sports model, which assumes that the strength of the community exceeds what individuals can achieve alone. We often see that our best Norwegian alpine skiers give each other a lot of positive feedback when they have reached the finish line after a competition. They also are known to grab a radio and send messages with advice to teammates, who are also fierce competitors, when they stand on top of the slope about to race down.
5. Together on the Big Achievements
Norwegian sports facilitate learning across sports. We have joint research and development projects, and arenas, where athletes and coaches meet across disciplines. This form of competence sharing has systematically been valuable. Few countries, if any, match Norway in this area.
Our athletes are the beneficiaries from our approach to research, training and team-building. Bjørn Dæhlie, Norway’s cross-country legend, was heard many times saying, in effect, “Olympic champion is something I have been, and it is something I can become. It is not something I am.”
6. Systematic Education of Trainers
A solid and broad sports education program has been built up for coaches and managers. Our university and college system has played a major role starting in the 2000s. Most of the coaches behind the development of modern elite sports come almost without exception from academia, and they often come with a solid pedagogical competence in their backpack.
At the same time, the Norwegian success in this Winter Olympics in Beijing is strongly linked to how we develop playful elite athletes who have no fear of failure.
7. The Combination of Top Sports and Education
There are long traditions for young athletes ages 15 to 19 to both train as athletes and receive an education, with many studying part-time at universities and colleges throughout their sport careers. We have a number of sports-focused high schools all over Norway where top young athletes get to organize a holistic and good life while pursuing a sports career and education. This approach also gives young people access to skilled coaches in a particularly important development phase.
We are proud of the sport model that Norway has developed, and we believe features of our model can be applied to other countries, including the United States. While your country is much larger, children are children, athletes are athletes, and all thrive within a system that addresses their needs and that of the society in which they live.
Learn about Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports, drafted by the Aspen Institute and a working group of human rights and sports policy leaders, including the current list of endorsing organizations.