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25 January 2023

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

A unique commitment to making the “joy of sport” available to all is producing world-class talent in everything from golf and tennis to beach volleyball.

By Jonathan Liew

Idrettsgallaen 2023, the Norwegian equivalent of Britain’s Sports Personality of the Year awards, was held in Hamar’s Olympic Hall on 7 January, and by all accounts the mood was even more festive than usual. The previous year had been one of the most remarkable in Norway’s sporting history, and so as well as disbursing the customary prizes it was a moment to celebrate and admire the view from the summit.

At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Norway won 16 gold medals, beating the record for any nation at a single winter Games. Erling Braut Haaland and Ada Hegerberg are two of the greatest footballers on the planet. Martin Ødegaard is the captain of Premier League leaders Arsenal. Casper Ruud is ranked the world’s second-best male tennis player and reached the final of both the US Open and the French Open last year. Viktor Hovland reached third 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 the standards of any nation, this would be a formidable roster of sporting achievement. And yet this is a country of just five million people, and one that is in effect frozen over for large parts of the year. “It’s cool to be Norwegian in the year that has just been,” said Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the Olympic 1,500 metres and World 5,000 metres champion who received the male athlete of the year award. “Per inhabitant, we must be the nation with the most quality.” It is worth asking exactly what is going on here, whether anything tangible can be learned from Norway’s golden generation. By “learned” I am not referring to the narrow, clinical lessons found in high-performance sporting discourse: the language of PowerPoint presentations and elite taskforces. Because the more you delve into the Norwegian success story and the way in which the country has developed a sporting culture, the more interesting it becomes.

The natural reflex is to point out that Norway is a wealthy European nation with ample resources to put into its sporting infrastructure. But this explains nothing on its own; Ireland, a country with a similar population and GDP, has a comparatively small global sporting footprint. Besides, Norway has been wealthy for decades, and yet if you go back through Idrettsgallaen shortlists of the 2000s they were generally populated by skiers and biathletes, plucky bronze medallists and the odd mid-standard Premier League footballer such as John Carew or Claus Lundekvam.

But of course money helps, if you know where to spend it. And while nations such as China and Great Britain have funnelled overwhelming resources into the elite end of the pyramid, sports policy in Norway is seen as a joint enterprise in culture, education and public health. State funding is focused on grass-roots participation, and in particular the local clubs and volunteer organisations that provide most children with their first experience of sport. When you buy a lottery ticket, you can choose to donate a portion of the proceeds to your local sports club. Perhaps this explains why around 80 per cent of children aged between six and 12 participate in at least one sporting activity.

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Allied to this is a certain vision of sport that distinguishes Norway from many of its international competitors. It’s called idrettsglede – literally, “the joy of sport”. In Norway, organised sporting teams can’t keep score until participants are 13: that means no targets or league tables. Coaches are forbidden from telling young athletes how much they weigh in case it induces eating disorders. Children are not pushed to specialise in a single sport too early. Erling Haaland grew up running, skiing and playing handball. “We want to leave the kids alone,” Tore Øvrebø, Norway’s director of elite sport, told Time magazine. “They learn a lot from playing, from not being anxious, from not being counted, from not being judged… And they tend to stay on for longer.”

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Norway’s idrettsglede could scarcely be more at odds with the modern view of sport in Britain. For decades, successive governments invested heavily in Olympic sport while slowly whittling away at the system beneath, allowing playing fields to be sold off and state school sport to wither. Women’s sport was disdained unless it “paid the bills”. This was, in essence, sport viewed through a cynical commercial lens: not something you do but something you pay for, not a vehicle of personal joy but an entertainment product.

Norwegian sport is far from perfect. Even amid the gold rush there are notes of caution being sounded over the focus on elite achievement. Rising costs have hit local sporting clubs hard and raised the barriers to entry for the poorest. The lack of diversity on the shortlists has catalysed a conversation on whether Norwegian sport is less inclusive than it likes to imagine. The problem of ensuring access for all is, according to the prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, “a great democratic task before us”.

And yet from across the sea, even to hear a prime minister speak about sport in these terms feels bracing, almost renegade. So often in this country we are told that sport as a public good and sport as a mass entertainment product are two opposing poles. Norway’s success story reminds us that they need not be.

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

This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better