Every time the Olympic Winter Games roll around, table-topping medal counts from an impressively tiny country of only 5.4 million residents fuel a media frenzy on sport development in the Scandinavian nation of Norway. Whether it’s Time Magazine or the New York Times, everyone is asking what the secret to success is among the Vikings and how to implement it elsewhere.
The U.S. Ski Team even sent a delegation of managers and coaches to meet with the Norwegian Ski Federation in the fall of 2018 to exchange insights on creating some of the fastest alpine ski racers in the world. But if a tweak here or a revision there could recreate the magic someplace else, why can’t every sports federation around the globe just copy-paste the Norwegian model to develop winning athletes?
I coached at several ski academies in the U.S. for a decade and then served as editor-in-chief at Ski Racing Media before working for the FIS on the World Cup tour. Last year, I settled into my new home in Oslo, Norway, where I had the eye-opening experience of learning about this culture from the inside out while coaching U14s on a part-time basis at a local ski club. What I discovered is that a unique combination of sports clubs, academic emphasis, access, and a deeply ingrained social code all conspire to make the Attacking Vikings the gritty champions they are.
A common joke is that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, but the truth is that those are actually cross-country skis. Alpine ski racing in Norway, albeit popularized by Lasse Kjus, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, and Aksel Lund Svindal, isn’t even close to the national sport. But sport, in general, is highly prized, and a successful athlete on the world stage is celebrated like a hero regardless of event in this country.
Norwegian sport clubs
In Norway, sport is so highly prized because Norwegians organize themselves socially around sports clubs. From a young age, children join a club just like they attend school, which becomes part of their identity as they grow up among teammates. Many of the clubs around Oslo offer multiple sports depending on the season, so there’s a pretty good chance that your football (soccer) friends are also your ski racing friends.
Cost is always a topic of discussion, and Norwegians consider the cost of alpine ski racing to be astronomical compared to other sports. Access to sport is essential to life in the country, so children should be able to play without significant financial burden to their families. The Norwegian Sports Association conducted a survey earlier this year that revealed the average cost of youth participation in sport. For nine-year-olds, the annual cost was $400 and for 15-year-olds it was $1,000.
Alpine ski racing, on the other hand, drove up the average. For 15-year-olds, the cost was estimated at $5,000. This is considered a tragedy that calls for inquiry and reform in Norway.
On the elite FIS level here, students can attend subsidized sports academies for a fee of $2,800 along with $6,700 in club costs and approximately $5,000 for 50 days of summer on-snow training. Race costs and personal equipment are additional, of course. Still, there are probably plenty of North American parents who would be thrilled to find an academy solution billed out under $15,000.
Complementary to the clubs, schools support sports training and consider a session in the gym or afternoon on the hill to be an integral part of academic study. They use sports programs in schools as credit-bearing courses to educate students on physical activity, exercise, training management, health, diet, biomechanics, and theoretical subjects. This enables kids to participate in dryland and on-snow training during the school day, placing fewer demands on student-athletes outside of the classroom.
The study of sport is widely supported even at the higher education level. Sports science provides the guidelines for how the associations create their development systems, and it also influences how coaches at every level look at their sport. You can study coaching, specifically alpine ski coaching, at the bachelor’s or master’s level at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.
Programs like the ones at high schools and universities that view sport through an academic lens help create more wholly educated and informed athletes and coaches across the board.
Access and proximity
Access to skiing is first and foremost close to home and then practically year-round on glaciers, all within driving distance of the major cities. A new indoor ski hall built just outside Oslo expanded that access and made it convenient to increase training volume without a significant impact on school attendance or other commitments.
During the winter, racers have training or competitions practically every day of the week. But something that struck me as different from my experiences in the U.S. were the frequent midweek-evening and Friday-afternoon races for the U16-and-younger age classes, especially in the Oslo area. Instead of devoting an entire weekend to log two races, young skiers can often tally two per week and still have the weekend to train at bigger mountains or travel to other events.
With this access and proximity also comes greater flexibility in scheduling, attendance, and, ultimately, enjoyment. The second-year U14 group I had last winter was over 30 kids who trained and raced together with three coaches. We didn’t split the group up based on perceived ability or past success. As coaches, we rotated around the hill and worked with every kid in the group at different times.
Some skiers attended every training session and race, and others came when they wanted to or when it didn’t conflict with another sport. One of our athletes was a regular podium contender, and another had only recently moved to Norway and learned how to ski. They were in the same group and had equal training opportunities and access to coaches, nevertheless.
A set of unique social codes make the scenario I just described even possible. Janteloven, or “the law of Jante,” is a set of unspoken social norms that dictate how people are expected to act in Norway. As a social democracy, children are taught to put society ahead of the individual, refrain from boasting about individual accomplishments, and withhold jealousy of others. In short, everyone is equal, and nobody is any better than anyone else.
One of the few ways for Norwegians to elevate their social status is by excelling at sports, and both alpine and cross-country skiers who win races and medals quickly emerge as national heroes. As a motivating factor, this is practically impossible to replicate in North America. The vast majority of people in the U.S. and Canada only recognize alpine ski racing once every four years when it’s on primetime television.
I often reflect on what other nations or teams can learn from Norway, and some elements would certainly resonate even in a different cultural structure. But the pride Norwegians have in their way of doing things is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before.
If I could offer one suggestion of how the U.S. and Canada can look to Norway to revise their development systems, it would be this: Consider the social structure, access and proximity, and values of the population you are handling and work to create any and all opportunity and competitive advantage within those defined limitations.
Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing series on alpine development in North America. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.