‘No jerks allowed’: the egalitarianism behind Norway’s winter wonderland

Sean Ingle in Pyeongchang
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Men’s downhill silver medal winner Kjetil Jansrud, left, with his compatriot Aksel Lund Svindal, who took gold.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP</span>
Men’s downhill silver medal winner Kjetil Jansrud, left, with his compatriot Aksel Lund Svindal, who took gold. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

“Yes! Old-fashioned is perfect!” chuckles Tom Tvedt, the president of Norway’s Olympic Committee, when asked whether the philosophy behind his country’s staggering Winter Games success may be, well, a little old-fashioned.

The Norwegians refuse to plough millions into sports that ordinary folk simply do not play in exchange for a brief medal-winning serotonin hit. They stress the importance of the umbilical link between grassroots and elite sport. And, unusually to British ears, they say local sports clubs are a core part of their success.

“Our vision is sport for all,” Tvedt says. “Before you are 12 you should have fun with sport. So we don’t focus on who the winner is before then. Instead we are very focused on getting children into our 11,000 local sports clubs. And we have 93% of children and young people regularly playing sport in these organisations.”

As Tvedt explains, this benefits everyone, because the more that people enjoy sport as kids, the broader the talent pool their elite teams will have later. “All our medals have come from athletes who have started in local clubs. If an athlete is good, we will then bring them to the Olympiatoppen, our elite sports centre, where the top sport science comes into the picture.”

To say it is working is a thundering understatement. With three days remaining of these Olympics, Norway, a country of 5.2 million people, has won 35 medals. Germany is next on 25, with Canada one further behind in third.

There is an additional kicker. Norway’s sports federation has an annual budget of £13.7m for summer and winter sports. To put that into context, UK Sport has a budget of £137.5m a year to fund elite Olympic sport, of which £8m is ploughed into winter sports.

We believe in the socialist way of doing things. Success should be from working hard and being together.

Morten Aasen

“We get about the same as Britain spends on just its rowers and canoers,” says Kristin Kloster Aagen, the vice-president of the Norwegian Olympic Committee. She stresses she is impressed with Britain’s successes but says that by necessity Norway’s system is different. “Our athletes can’t get by on the grants we give them so they have to work. They are carpenters, plumbers, teachers, students.”

While Britain’s curlers received £5.6m before Pyeongchang, Norway’s mixed doubles curlers, who look set to win a bronze medal, had to put their kit on eBay because they need the money.

But what Norway’s athletes lack in finances they make up for in camaraderie – which is reinforced by a strict “no idiots” rule. As the skier Kjetil Jansrud, who has won silver and bronze in Pyeongchang, explains: “We believe there is no good explanation for why you have to be a jerk to be a good athlete. We just won’t have that kind of thing on our team.”

It helps that the Winter Olympics squad train together in the off-season at the Olympiatoppen and – famously – go out on Fridays for taco night, along with their partners.

And, as Morten Aasen, who competed for Norway in the 1992 Olympics, reveals, it is also not uncommon for that closeness to extend to top athletes paying poorer ones to come along to training camps.

“That kind of attitude is basically running through the whole system,” he says. “We don’t do skeleton or bobsleigh, like Britain, because that costs too much money. It is a paradox in Norway. We are a very rich country but we believe in the socialist way of doing things. That success should be from working hard and being together.”

<span class="element-image__caption">Johannes Høsflot Klæbo celebrates gold in the cross-country team sprint. Despite not starting to grow until his mid-teens, the skier’s love of his sport was entrenched.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Bob Martin/SilverHub/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Johannes Høsflot Klæbo celebrates gold in the cross-country team sprint. Despite not starting to grow until his mid-teens, the skier’s love of his sport was entrenched. Photograph: Bob Martin/SilverHub/Rex/Shutterstock

As another Norwegian Lief Kristian Nestvold-Haugen explained earlier this week, sometimes team-mates will share rooms 250 days in a year. “We don’t often stay in five-star hotels, and single rooms are very rare unless we’re travelling with an odd number of athletes,” he said. “Sometimes our rooms will have two double beds or just one queen bed. So then it’s two guys in the same bed. We don’t really think it’s a big deal.”

Of course infrastructure and camaraderie is only a part of Norway’s Winter Olympic success. Being a snow nation is clearly vital. It also helps that Norway’s best athletes compete in events such as cross-country skiing and biathlon where multiple medals are up for grabs.

Yet in Pyeongchang Norway has stretched its medals across a wider base of sports. Some of that is due to bringing in foreigners – when Havard Lorentzen took the country’s first medal in speed skating for 20 years, for instance, he thanked his Canadian coach, Jeremy Wotherspoon. The Austrian Alexander Stockl is credited with working wonders with the ski jumping team.

Tech has played a part too. A few years ago Norway launched the “big gliding project”, which has massive improved their athletes’ skis – although those involved stress the cost is tiny compared to what UK Sport will throw at its secret squirrel projects.

Not everything is perfect, mind. In 2016 Norwegian sport was rocked to its foundations when Martin Johnsrud Sundby – who has two golds and a silver in Pyeongchang – was banned for overuse of an asthma medicine. It prompted the Norwegian Ski Federation to open an investigation and it found asthma medication was freely available in the trailer used for waxing the skis of the competitors.

Eyebrows were also raised when the Norwegian TV channel NRK published the list of asthma drugs its country’s doctors were taking to this Winter Olympics, which amounted to 10 times more than Finland’s. “Their medical use is pushing the limits,” says Jostein Overik of the Norwegian paper VG. “You can’t say it is doping, because cross-country skiers do have problems with their airwaves in cold weather. But it does raise ethical questions.”

Kloster Agan insists such medication merely allows those with asthma to compete on level terms. “Some of the competitors will say there is an overuse of asthma medication in Norway,” she says. “But our medical staff are really experienced and they know where the boundaries are. We have had one case where an athlete didn’t apply for his therapeutic use exemption and he was banned for two months. He won’t do that again in a hurry.”

Surprisingly, Norway’s sporting bodies have a much stricter ethical boundary when it comes to altitude tents, which are used by many endurance athletes to naturally boost their red blood cell count. “We don’t allow that in Norway,” Twelde says. “We say no. You must go up to the mountains if you want the benefits of training at altitude.”

The broader benefits of the country’s holistic approach were again highlighted on Wednesday when the cross-country skier Johannes Hosflot Klaebo celebrated his third gold medal.

Tellingly, Klaebo was a small boy who did n ot start to properly grow until his mid-teens. By then, however, his love of sport was entrenched – and because he was in the system his improvement was quickly spotted by elite coaches.

Yet that is just one tale among a great many in these Games. “Our goal was 10 gold medals and 30 overall, so what we are seeing is something extraordinary,” concedes Twelde, shaking his head in wonder and no little pride. “It is fantastic for our model, and the way we think. This has been a brilliant dream.” And it is not, you suspect, finished yet.

What to read next