It’s Norway’s Games Again. What’s Its Secret?
BEIJING — They’re doing it again.
Norway, with a population of just five million, is executing its quadrennial triumph over the rest of the world.
It may not surpass the historic 2018 Pyeongchang Games, when Norway won 39 medals, eight more than its closest competitor, Germany, which has 16 times as many people.
But it’s close.
Norway won its 15th gold medal of the Beijing Games on Friday, a record for a single country at a Winter Olympics, a total that put it seven ahead of Russia (population 144 million) in the overall medals table and five ahead of Germany (population 83 million) in the race for the most golds.
Its most recent triumph came in men’s biathlon, but Norway also has medals in ski jumping, Nordic combined, speedskating and cross-country and freestyle skiing.
“We have a strong team,” said Kjetil Jansrud, the champion Alpine skier. “We always do.”
More than strong. Norway is now so successful it has become the winter sports beacon. American skiers, both Alpine and cross-country, have trained with Norwegian athletes on the same mountains and glaciers for years. Every year, the country brings 150 of the top international junior cross country skiers to a camp to learn technique and train with the sport’s top coaches. Norway has had a partnership with Britain to develop and share wax technology for Nordic skiing.
Norwegians have won four gold medals in cross-country, even though one of its top skiers, Heidi Weng, missed the Olympics after testing positive for Covid. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times
During the last four years though, several countries have sent their top sports leaders to study the country’s methods — well, the ones its specialists will share — highlighting the latest step in Norway’s elite winter sports hospitality.
“After watching what Norway did in Pyeongchang, I just told my team we are going over there, and we are going to figure out what the hell is going on and what they are doing,” said Luke Bodensteiner, then the director of sport for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the national governing body for skiing.
And so, that spring, Bodensteiner and top executives went to visit their competition.
Norway’s willingness to offer tutorials to competitors may seem strange, but, while it wants to win, it also wants to make sure the winter sports its prizes are thriving, and that will only happen if the competition is tough.
Bodensteiner and his team left Norway after a week confident that any country could build a Norwegian-style winter sports machine. All it would take is 30 years and a complete overhaul of the systems that develop young athletes.
He also had a sneaking suspicion that Norway was keeping its most valuable information to itself.
Norway, for instance, was far ahead of competitors in developing the most aerodynamic suits for skiing. It pioneered the use of GPS sensors to help Alpine skiers find the fastest line down the mountain. Its cross-country skis are reliably the fastest, the result of endless testing and retesting.
While the rest of the world trained Alpine skiers like sprinters, focusing on building explosiveness, Norwegian coaches and trainers discovered that Alpine racing was more like a 3,000-meter run. So Alpine skiers started training more like distance runners, taking long bike rides and doing creative aerobic training circuits in the gym.
The country’s research is now starting to pay off in summer sports as well. In Tokyo, Norway’s men won gold medals in track in the 400-meter hurdles and the 1,500.
For Norway, everything changed after the 1988 Calgary Games, where it won just five medals, none of them gold. That was an unacceptable outcome for a country where children begin to ski and walk around the same age.
Norway, which had quickly transformed from a middling economy built around fishing and farming into a petroleum-rich nation, started plowing money into Olympiatoppen, the organization that oversees elite Olympic sports.
It also doubled down on its commitments under its Children’s Right in Sports document, which guarantees and encourages every child in the country access to high-quality opportunities in athletics, with a focus on participation and socialization rather than hard-core competition.
Norway’s well-funded local sports clubs, which exist in nearly every neighborhood and village, do not hold championships until the children reach age 13.
Its largest national skiing event, the Holmenkollen Ski Festival, which began in 1892, includes a race for elite adult skiers but not youngsters. Children join the course when they want and there is no official time keeping for them. The coaches, both the professionals and parent volunteers, have to undergo formal training.
“There just seems to be a lot more emphasis on including everybody,” said Atle McGrath, a 21-year-old Norwegian Alpine skier whose father, Felix, competed in Alpine for the United States at the 1988 Olympics. “Whether or not you are really good or not, it’s pretty much the same experience for everyone.”
Jim Stray-Gundersen, a former surgeon and physiologist who is the sports science adviser to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, lived in Norway, where his father grew up, for five years while working as a scientist with Norway’s Olympic athletes. He said a priority of the country is to build a culture of health and regular exercise, and its competitive prowess flows from that.
“It’s how you produce psychological satisfaction, healthy life habits, and stellar athletes over time, and it’s very much in contrast to how we do it and don’t do it in the U.S.,” he said.
Youngsters who do not exhibit special talent stay involved, and some of them bloom as teenagers, long after children in more competition-driven countries might have moved on to the cello. McGrath, for example, did not excel until he was 17.
Norwegians also tend to relish outdoor life and activity, during both the summer months when the sun shines for nearly 22 hours, and during the long, cold, dark winters.
Felix McGrath, who grew up in Vermont, said his son first showed an affinity for skiing when he was 8 or 9 years old and would spend hours going off homemade ski jumps in the front yard, though he continued to play soccer and baseball and cross-country skied.
At 14, he got serious about Alpine skiing but people barely paid attention to his results at races until he was at least 16 and attending a special, public school for aspiring Alpine skiers.
“Atle was always pretty good but he was never winning consistently,” McGrath said. “He was sort of that guy that was always hovering a teeny bit behind the best kids and always showing up and working hard and getting better.”
Atle McGrath did not win a medal in these Games, but he did display some Norwegian spirit. On Wednesday he skidded past a gate in his second slalom run and came to a dead stop. But instead of skiing off the course, he took two steps up the hill, went back around the gate and continued down the slope. He crossed the finish line 12 seconds behind the leader but still raised his arms in triumph.
That is, after all, what Norwegians do at the Olympics.