Norway’s golden generation of athletes proves the value of sport as a public good

the sports gala 2023, the Norwegian equivalent of Britain’s Sports Personality of the Year awards, was held at the Olympic Hall in Hamar on 7 January and by all accounts the mood was even more festive than usual. The previous year had been one of the most memorable in Norwegian sporting history and therefore, in addition to handing out the usual prizes, it was a time to celebrate and admire the view from the summit.

At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Norway won 16 gold medals, breaking the record for any nation at a single Winter Games. Erling Braut Haaland and Ada Hegerberg are two of the greatest football players on the planet. Martin Ødegaard is the captain of Premier League leaders Arsenal. Casper Ruud is ranked as the second best male tennis player in the world and reached the final of both the US Open and the French Open last year. Viktor Hovland reached third place in the golf world rankings. Magnus Carlsen is one of the greatest chess players in history. Norwegians are currently world champions in sports as diverse as weightlifting, ironman triathlon, beach volleyball and time trial cycling.

By any nation’s standards, this would be a formidable list of sporting achievements. And yet this is a country of just five million people, and one that is frozen for much of the year. “It’s nice to be Norwegian in the year that’s just ended,” said Jakob Ingebrigtsen, an Olympic 1,500 meters champion and world 5,000 meters champion who received the men’s athlete of the year award. “Per inhabitant, we must be the nation with the most quality.” It’s worth asking exactly what’s going on here, if anything tangible can be learned from Norway’s golden generation. By “learned” I don’t mean the narrow clinical lessons found in high-performance sports discourse: the language of PowerPoint presentations and elite task forces. Because the deeper you delve into the Norwegian success story and how the country has developed a sports culture, the more interesting it becomes.

The natural reflex is to point out that Norway is a rich European nation with ample resources to invest in its sports infrastructure. But that doesn’t explain anything by itself; Ireland, a country with a similar population and GDP, has a comparatively small global sports footprint. Also, Norway has been rich for decades, and even then, if you go back the sports gala finalist lists of the 2000s, they were usually filled by skiers and biathletes, valiant bronze medalists and the odd mid-level Premier League footballer like John Carew or Claus Lundekvam.

But of course money helps if you know where to spend it. And while nations like China and Britain funneled overwhelming resources to the elite of the pyramid, sports policy in Norway is seen as a joint venture in culture, education and public health. State funding is centered on popular participation and, in particular, on local clubs and voluntary organizations that provide most children with their first sporting experience. When purchasing a lottery ticket, you can choose to donate a portion of the proceeds to your local sports club. Perhaps this explains why around 80% of children between the ages of six and 12 practice at least one sporting activity.

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Allied to this is a certain vision of sport that sets Norway apart from many of its international competitors. Is called sports joy — literally, “the joy of sport.” In Norway, organized sports teams cannot keep score until participants are 13 years old: this means there are no targets or leaderboards. Coaches are prohibited from telling young athletes how much they weigh in case it induces eating disorders. Children are not forced to specialize in a single sport too early. Erling Haaland grew up running, skiing and playing handball. “We want to leave the kids alone,” said Tore Øvrebø, Norway’s director of elite sports. Time magazine. “They learn a lot by playing, not to be anxious, not to be told, not to be judged… And they tend to stay longer.”

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from norway sports joy could hardly be more at odds with the modern view of sport in Britain. For decades, successive governments have invested heavily in Olympic sport while slowly tearing the system down, allowing playing fields to be sold and state school sport to wither. Women’s sport was looked down upon unless it “paid the bills”. This was, in essence, sport seen through a cynical commercial lens: not something you do but something you pay for, not a vehicle for personal enjoyment but an entertainment product.

Norwegian sport is far from perfect. Even amidst the gold rush, there are notes of caution about focusing on elite achievement. Rising costs have hit local sports clubs hard and raised barriers to entry for the poorest. The lack of diversity on the shortlists has catalyzed a conversation about whether Norwegian sport is less inclusive than it likes to imagine. The problem of ensuring access for all is, according to Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, “a great democratic task before us”.

And yet, across the seas, even hearing a prime minister talk about sports in those terms feels refreshing, almost renegade. We are often told in this country that sport as a public good and sport as a product of mass entertainment are polar opposites. Norway’s success story reminds us that they don’t have to be.

[See also: Why I will remember the day of the 2022 World Cup final, forever]

Norway’s golden generation of athletes proves the value of sport as a public good

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