Not just snow: what’s the secret to Norway’s Winter Olympic success?

Norway are clear at the top of the medal table in Beijing, thanks to a system built on grass roots participation

As the 2022 Winter Olympics draws towards its conclusion, once again Norway sit pretty on top of the medal table. It is not just a one-off. Norway have been outside the top four in a Winter Olympics medal table once since 1992 and topped it in 2002 and 2018. But how does this small Scandinavian country continually out-power much bigger rivals? “I mean, we have a lot of cold,” said a joking Sturla Holm Lægreid of the (predictably enough) winning men’s biathlon relay team by way of an explanation.

It is not simply climate, though. Sweden, Austria and Switzerland benefit from the same advantage and have larger populations and bigger talent pools to draw from. Geopolitics, budgets and population size dictate that China, the US and Russia always put up strong Olympic teams. What Norway does have is an intense focus on grassroots participation in winter sport from a young age.

Norwegian athletes will often joke they are a nation born with skis on, but cross-country skiing and biathlon are popular televised sports and there are more than 10,000 local sports clubs in Norway. In 2018, the proportion of children regularly taking part in winter sports was put at 93%. Importantly, at a young age the focus is on fun. They do not keep scores for games involving small children, but as they get older there is a huge active talent pool to move up to the Olympiatoppen for elite sport training.

“We’re not many people, but we’re a people with passion,” said Mons Røisland after earning silver in the men’s snowboard big air. “There are so many athletes out of Norway and it’s so impressive and inspiring to see what everyone does to be here.”

Norway’s success is not distributed evenly across all Winter Olympics sports. The country leads the all‑time medal table in cross-country skiing, ski jumping and the Nordic combined discipline and 12 of their 14 golds in Beijing have come in those three events plus biathlon. They have never won any medals in bobsleigh, luge or skeleton and have not won gold in figure skating since 1936.

Norway’s Marte Olsbu Røiseland with her gold from the biathlon 10km pursuit
Norway’s Marte Olsbu Røiseland with her gold from the biathlon 10km pursuit. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Team GB’s quest for medals started in earnest after a dismal performance in the Summer Olympic Games of 1996 in Atlanta when the team returned home with one gold. Since then, funding has been funnelled towards sports where there is a decent prospect of medals and national lottery money has poured in. That is an alien approach to Norway, whose overall Olympic budget is a tenth of that expended by Great Britain.

In 2018, Morten Aasen, a former Norwegian Olympian, said: “We don’t do skeleton or bobsleigh because that costs too much money. 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.”

The huge emphasis on camaraderie means the team have little room for ego. This was typified by Johannes Thingnes Bø. He has won three golds and a bronze in biathlon in these Games, with his elder brother sharing podiums with him as he claimed two golds, a silver and a bronze. Yet after a gruelling 10km sprint event at the Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre, which the younger Bø led from start to finish, he said: “Some days you just feel like the wax men do half of the work. Today was a day like that.”

While it might look from afar that Norway are sweeping all before them, there are some rumbles of discontent about this year’s performance. The team have 29 medals, but it will be a stretch for them to reach the record they sent in Pyeongchang in 2018 of 39. In particular, the performance in cross-country has prompted much discussion back home.

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Johannes Høsflot Klæbo finished a distant 40th in the men’s 15km + 15km skiathlon despite going into it as a well-fancied favourite. He said: “In the Norwegian media, for sure, it’s been a lot of discussions about many different things. That is not the best or most positive thing for us.”

Birk Ruud, a member of the freestyle ski team, thinks the answer is much more obvious. When asked about Norway’s exceptional performances in Beijing, he said: “We’re a country with a lot of good genes and we work hard.”

• This article was amended on 18 February 2022 because an earlier version said that Norway “have not won a figure skating gold medal since 1928”. In fact Sonja Henie successfully defended her Olympic title representing Norway in 1932 and in 1936.


Martin Belam, with Sean Ingle in Beijing

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