Apart from that little North Korea diplomacy thing, the transcendent story of the PyeongChang Games was Norway, which performed better than any nation in the history of the Winter Olympics. Its athletes earned a record 39 medals, a stunning 16 more than the United States, reaching the podium not just in its traditional strengths of cross-country skiing and biathlon but also in alpine skiing, speed skating, ski jumping, and freestyle skiing.
The Norwegians won so much, modesty finally escaped them.
“Incredible,” said Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skater who won four gold medals at the 1992 and ’94 Olympics. “This has been the most incredible Olympics ever from a performance perspective.”
The haul is made all the more extraordinary by the relative size of the western-most Scandinavian country. Norway is a nation of just 5.3 million people, a population not much larger than Greater Detroit. Norway won 7.3 medals for every one million residents, according to research by NBC Sports. The only nation with a better ratio was Lichtenstein, which is more a hamlet than a country and won a bronze in alpine skiing.
One caveat before we move on: Countries with large populations can only rise so high on the above list. If the US won every possible medal in events that its athletes qualified for (228 medals), its ratio would max out at 0.70. The best pound-for-pound fighters are never heavyweights.
Still, the chart is a useful entry point into understanding the quality of a nation’s sport system. How it organizes its assets and confronts the challenges that other nations face. How it introduces children to sports, identifies and develops talent, and moves them through the lifecycle of an athlete. After these 2018 Winter Games, it is both natural and healthy to ask: What in the world have the Norwegians figured out?
That’s what I did for the past week from the advantaged perch of the International Broadcast Center in PyeongChang. It’s a like a sport-focused United Nations, with sport chiefs, journalists, and athletes from all over the globe passing through its cavernous hallways on the way to guest spots, happy to share insights. The Norwegians were particularly generous because, well, they’re Norwegians, who quite often are really nice people. (You can listen to my interviews on The Podium, the Olympics podcast from Vox Media and NBC Sports.)
“We have some responsibilities when we have this medal count,” said Tore Øvrebø, head of the Norwegian Olympic Committee delegation, as we sat down for our second interview in three days. “We want to talk about systems and how we do things, but not brag about it.”
He’ll leave the gushing to others, like Angela Ruggiero. The hockey hall of famer sits on the board of the US Olympic Committee and the executive board of the International Olympic Committee. Over the past few years, she became acquainted with Norway’s system as chair of the coordinating committee for the IOC’s Youth Winter Olympic Games, held in 2016 in Lillehammer.
“I was blown away and started sharing it,” she told me last week. “But the conversation is bigger now that we are at the Games.”
The good news: Many of the ideas underpinning Norway’s sport system have begun taking hold in the US, especially those at the base of the pipeline. Stakeholders who have engaged with the Aspen Institute Project Play initiative will recognize most of them. The better news: Norway offers a road map on taking next steps.
Here are five things to know about Norway’s sport system.
It wasn’t always a model
For more than a half century after winter sports were added to the Olympic Games in 1924, Norway performed well, thanks largely to a nature-loving culture in which families get kids on cross-country skis and skates before they are old enough to start school. Then, at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Norway won just five medals, none gold, and finished 11th in the medal table. For all that snow and ice that Norwegians grow up on most of the year, the land of vikings could produce no conquerors in the sports played on those surfaces. It stung.
“A national trauma,” Øvrebø told me with a smile.
But it was a highly productive national trauma. Opportunity is often born from crisis, and the failure to show at those Games – with Norway set to host the Winter Games in Lillehammer in 1994 – prompted sport, government, and other leaders to get around the table and begin collaborating in ways they had not done previously. They began to fully embrace ideas that had been percolating since Norway had underperformed in the 1984 Winter and Summer Olympics.
Moving forward, Norway took a more coordinated approach to advancing sport at every level. Sport science increasingly guided the design of the system and activities of the federations responsible for developing athletes, whose holistic needs (psychological, intellectual, and social) were now emphasized. World-class research on best practices was produced by universities and, rather than languish in academic journals, moved with purpose into the field. Coaches at every level were encouraged to apply key principles, and top coaches were brought together regularly to share knowledge across sports.
Sport for All is the governing ethos
The concept is baked into the policies and leadership structures that guide sport activity in Norway. The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports has under its purview the responsibility to develop athletes of all ability levels, including those with physical and intellectual disabilities, and the sport activity for all communities and all citizens at every point over the lifespan. The integrated approach facilitates engagement with the widest swath of the population through its member clubs, of which there are 12,000.
“Sport should be a human development program,” Øvrebø said, noting that 93 percent of young adults have participated in the system.
He said the way Norwegian society organizes itself encourages participation. “We have a social democracy model, which means that all kids have more or less the same opportunities,” he said. “They have good health care supported by the government and sufficient food and shelter growing up. They have a good education system and university system that is free. So when they start doing sport, they don’t need so much extra support because they’re already taken care of.”
Sport is seen less as a means to better life than it is in the US, where the chase for college athletic scholarships has reshaped the youth sport landscape over the past generation. Free to play for intrinsic rewards, most Norwegian youth still choose sports. It’s just more on their terms.
“(Youth) are literate and know how things work, and they learn to stand up and they can have a reflective conversation with teachers and coaches,” Øvrebø said. “The coaches cannot bully them because they have choice. If you have a child who chooses to be in sports, has ambition and understands hard work, then you can have a top athlete.”
Youth are the most important athletes in the system
The very best adult athletes are provided a renowned national training center, Olympiatoppen, to advance their talents. But unlike some European countries, Norway spends little on direct financial support for its elite athletes. About 250 athletes, across all winter and summer sports, receive an annual stipend of $10,000 to $15,000, Øvrebø said.
That doesn’t go very far on a per-capita income basis in the sixth-wealthiest nation in the world. (Norway, adjacent to the North Sea, is one of the world’s top oil producers.)
Instead, much of the focus of the Norwegian sport system is on the base of its pipeline. “Everything starts with the kids, the parents and the clubs,” Øvrebø said. Due to Norway’s small population and potential talent pool, sport leaders embrace policies that maximize enjoyment and limit attrition as youth move into adolescence.
They recognize that childhood is a time of exploration. So, youth are encouraged to sample a variety of sports through age 15; no less important, community clubs support that type of engagement. As a result, Norway has underwhelmed on the international stage in early specialization sports like gymnastics, which ask that children train in one sport well before adolescence to advance to elite competition. But youth also develop the overall athleticism that facilitates entry into a wide array of sports, and, research shows, creates athletes for life.
“People [in countries such as the US] are having a discussion about specialization at 6, 7 and 8, which is an absurd discussion in Norway,” said Koss, who now lives in Toronto. “It’s not like [Norwegian children] are not spending a lot of time in sport. They’re very physically active. They’re just practicing different things. They get a much broader base technically and physically than if they specialize early.”
This approach makes sense even for those who chase Olympic dreams, he said. “There’s a 10-year high intensity period [in elite development]. If you specialize from ages 7 to 17, you might not ever get that level. If you do it from 17 to 27, you peak at the right time.”
The latest example: Johannes Klaebo, 21. Considered a great all-around athlete who could have done well in soccer or other sports, he is one of the breakout stars of these Olympics, with three gold medals in cross country skiing. Øvrebø noted that until a year ago, few even in Norway had heard of him.
Competition structures are carefully introduced
Obviously, based on the PyeongChang results, Norwegian athletes know how to compete. But sport leaders in the country are judicious about when and how they introduce game and race formats, to align with best practices in athletic and child development.
One key feature: Clubs do not record game scores until age 13, to focus Norway’s network of mostly volunteer coaches on the personal development of each child rather than team success propelled often by early-blooming children who have a size advantage. Kids and adults keep scores in their heads, of course, but clubs are prohibited from publishing the results online or in the newspaper or using them to keep standings. In cross country skiing and other races, the time of the child may be posted but not their relative rank to other children.
“We like to win and lose, but it shouldn’t follow you and define you as an individual when you are a kid,” Øvrebø said. “We like it to be [about] play and having fun. They should learn social skills. Learn to take instructions, and think by themselves. Learn to know what the rules are. Learn why we are doing these things together. So there is a value system going through the [activity] that is actually about developing people. That’s the main goal of sport, to develop people.”
And if a club violates the no-keeping-score rule? “You get expelled from the Norwegian confederation of sports,” he said.
That might seem like a draconian penalty to people who only know the US model for youth sports, with its landscape of travel tournaments and AAU national championships down the second-grade level. Deeply held cultural notions that some have about the role of winning and losing in sports as a way to prepare children for life have sparked fierce, philosophical debates about the provision of “participation trophies” to little kids.
In Norway, there’s no real debate. Kids through age 12 get trophies at the end of each season.“Everyone should see themselves as winners, just for participating,” said Øvrebø. They regard a participation ethos as key to, among other strategies, making room for late bloomers who don’t grow into their bodies, true interests, or talents until the teenage years. In the US system, there’s more pressure to achieve early as a means of gaining access to club teams that aggregate talent.
“I’m not saying the US is doing it wrong, because you have Olympic success and incredible, impressive professional sports,” Koss said. “We don’t have the talent base, so we have to do it different. Personally, I like the Norwegian model because I’m the result of it. I was not good at 15. I didn’t break through until 16 or 17, and if I would have been excluded before then, I might not have made it.”
Øvrebø said the Norwegians consider ambition to be “natural” and that that coaches are expected to teach psychological “competition skills,” especially as athletes begin training for elite competition. But the values and benefits of cooperation are promoted as well. It’s been a defining feature of the Norwegian teams in PyeongChang, rivals on the same team training together – and playing off steam together. Time’s Sean Gregory noted in a piece last week how members of the team have been playing cards and charades before competitions.
“We came here with three objectives,” Øvrebø told me last week. “One was to have fun. That’s very important. We learn from the kids and the freestyle [athletes] that everything is about having fun, so we try to put that into all our systems. We also should leave Korea being at least as good of friends as we were coming in. We’re planning another Olympics, so let’s not break too many relationships.
“The last ambition is to take 30 medals. To be top three.”Mission accomplished there. And then some.
The model is funded – by gambling
The US is one of the few nations without a sports ministry or similar federal entity charged with coordinating sport development. In 1978, the Congress asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take on that role, with oversight over the sport-specific National Governing Bodies (NGBs) in charge of each pipeline. The challenge: It was an unfunded mandate. Without dedicated resources, the USOC relies on sponsorships, media revenues, and individual donations to support operations. Those funds largely go to NGBs and athletes with the best prospects of delivering Olympic medals, which in turn drives commercial opportunities.
Norway has the grassroots piece covered, thanks to gambling.
Sports betting and other forms of gambling are legal in Norway, and controlled by a government-sanctioned non-profit company, Norsk Tipping. When placing a bet, players may direct 7 percent of their stake to a local club, humanitarian organization, or cultural organization of their choice. This doesn’t affect their possible prize but is a distribution of a small share of Norsk Tipping’s annual surplus. In 2017, the “Grass Root Share” generated $58 million, said Roar Jodahl, spokesman for Norsk Tipping.
At the end of the year, Norsk Tipping sends the rest of its surplus to the government, which distributes the funds to an array of organizations based on a formula determined by the country’s parliament. The current distribution cut is 64 percent to sports, 18 percent to culture, and 18 percent for social/humanitarian purposes. In 2016, that generated $330 million for sport organizations, most of them at the community level.
Since inception in 1948, when Norsk Tipping was created as a means of financing the rebuilding of the country after World War II, the fund has delivered $6.4 billion (in 2016 value) to sports.
“The funds from Norsk Tipping are and have been vital to the financing of sports in Norway for many years,” Jodahl wrote in an email. “As explained above, the financing is reasonably large and the only annual contribution from government to the sports movement. This means it finances a large breadth of sports purposes close to home to the regular Norwegian – like the building of sports arenas all around the country for various sports, soccer balls, training gear and kids’ activities. But it also provides the main financing for the professional sports programs, like the anti-doping program, the Olympiatoppen program, mentorship and scholarships for professional athletes.”
Those funds also allow the government to drive adoption of best practices by sport providers, through the setting of grant criteria. “That provides opportunity for mostly sport-for-all projects,” Koss said. “This is critical to the stability and health of the Norwegian people.”
The results are hard to argue with. Norway is ranked No. 1 in the world on the Human Development Index, a measure of public health. It also ranked first on the World Happiness Report and first in the Democracy Index. One could argue those measures are unrelated to sport, but the Norwegians I spoke with disagree. They view sport as an all-purpose tool to build better citizens and more cohesive communities.
Now, they’re No. 1 in elite sports, at least in winter disciplines.
“It’s something that intuitively (makes sense),” said Ruggiero, of the strategy of growing access to quality sport activity for youth as a means of delivering better health outcomes and ultimately better Olympians. “But when you see results, people notice. It’s just taken a while for that youth structure to bubble up and produce results at the elite level.”
The next step for Norway, Øvrebø said, is to improve its international performance in summer Olympics. The country won just four medals, all bronze, at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But progress is being made there, too. In 2017, Norway rose to No. 1 as the greatest “per-capita sports nation in the world,” according to a website that issues annual rankings based on results in international competitions. Norway scored points throughout the year in 21 different sports, including track and field, handball, rowing, road cycling, and swimming.
“So it’s not the food, and it’s not the genes,” Øvrebø said. “It’s how we organize things.”
Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance for the USOC, is intrigued. The US won 23 medals in PyeongChang, down from 28 in Sochi in 2014 and 37 in Vancouver in 2010 when it set the Winter Games record. Displacing the US at the top of the medal table was not just Norway but Germany (31) and Canada (29) – all countries that have embraced sport-for-all policies and greater coherence in athlete development.
“We have something of a fractured system in our country,” Ashley said. “We have high school sports, club sports, college sports. You’ve got elite sport through NGBs, all these players in the mix. If we can figure out a way to be more systematic and consistent in how we introduce children to sport, get them to love sport, give them skills, and how we train our coaches, then we can use that as a springboard.”
Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. In the coming days, part two of this series will explore ways to improve the US system, drawing upon lessons learned from Norway’s success.