Norway’s treasure trove of medals
A brief history of the Winter Olympics’ all-time winningest nation’s exploits
The Norwegian American
Before my family left for a year in Norway in 1969, my father told me, a 10-year-old American sports fan, that Norway, a country of four million people, had won the most medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics.
As the 23rd Olympiad begins, Norway has 329 all-time medals, 47 more than the United States (282) a country of over 320 million. Norway has the most gold (118), silver (111), and bronze (100) medals. Austria has 218 medals and the combined totals of Germanys (209) are the only other “countries” that total more than 200 medals.
Norway won the most medals in five of the first six Games, and six of the first 10. They finished second in 1932, two behind the host Americans. Norway and the United States combined to win 22 of the 42 medals in 1932.
Let’s look at how Norway got to the podium so much.
The sport was first introduced to the Olympics in 1960. Norway didn’t medal until 1984. Then, Ole Einar Bjørndalen came on the scene. At 43, he missed participating in his seventh Olympic games in Pyeongchang. He didn’t medal in 1994, but since has totaled 13 medals (eight golds, four silvers, one bronze), the most by any winter Olympian. Bjørndalen captured four golds in 2002. Meanwhile, teammate Halvard Hanevol collected five medals in 1998, 2002, 2006, and Emil Hegle Svendsen five (four gold) in 2010 and 2014.
Norway won the debut of the mixed (female-male) relay in 2014 with Bjørndalen taking the third leg and Svendsen the anchor, following Tora Berger and Tiril Eckhoff. Berger is the female star after a gold in 2010 and silver and bronze medals in 2014.
Cross-country skiing (40-38-29-107)
Norway defines cross-country. There have been many stars from many eras. Currently, the brightest star is Marit Bjørgen, who has 10 medals from 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014, tied for first among women Winter Olympians (see Jo Christian Weldingh’s story). In 2014, Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, and Kristin Størmer Steira gave Norway a sweep in the 30km while Bjørgen also won gold in the 15km and team sprint with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. Maiken Caspersen Falla won the sprint with Østberg behind. Johaug earned bronze in the 10km, Heidi Weng bronze in the 15km as the women earned nine of Norway’s 11 cross-country medals.
On the men’s side, superstars Vegard Ulvang and Bjørn Dæhlie dominated in the 1980s and 1990s. After the men were shut out in 1984, Ulvang took bronze in the 30km in 1988. In 1992, he took three gold medals and one silver. That same year Dæhlie began his dominance with the same medal count. Terje Langli gave Norway a sweep in the 30km classical.
This was the Norwegians’ warm-up for the 1994 games in the home country. Dæhlie won gold in the 10km classical and 15km freestyle pursuit, silver in the 30km freestyle behind Alsgaard, and racing the anchor leg in the 4x10km relay, losing to Italy by .4 of a second. Dæhlie returned again in 1998, winning gold in the 10km, 50km, racing the third leg of the gold-winning 4x10km relay and taking silver to Allsgaard in the 30km, giving Dæhlie 12 total Olympic medals—one less than Bjørndalen—and tied with Bjørndalen at eight gold. His nine medals in individual events also ties him with Bjørndalen for best all-time.
The men accounted for seven of Norway’s 11 cross-country medals in 2002. Thomas Alsgaard and Frode Estil were the new stars in Salt Lake City. The pair took gold in the new 2×10-km pursuit event. Estil earned silver in the 15-km, Tor Arne Hetland gold in the sprint, Kristen Skjeldal bronze in the 30-km mass start and Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset bronze in the 50-km.
They had followed in the paths of the early Norwegian Olympians. Thorlief Haug, already a legendary cross-country skier, won the only two races at the 1924 Games. Johan Grøttumsbråten took the silver in the 18km and bronze in the 50km, while Thoralf Strømstad took the silver in the 50km, giving Norway five of the six medals. Grøttumsbråten won the gold in the 18km in 1928 with Ole Hegge and Reidar Ødegaard right behind.
Norway took three straight golds in the 50km in 1968 (Ole Ellefsæter), 1972 (Pål Tyldum), and 1976 (Ivar Formo). Petter Northug won in 2010 to go along with his gold in the team sprint with Øystein Pettersen, racing anchor on the silver-winning 4x10km relay and getting a bronze in the sprint.
Ski jumping (9-9-12-30)
Talk about being king of the hill(s). Norway won 14 of the first 18 medals in 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952. In 1924 Jacob Tullin Thams and Narve Bonna took the top two spots, with Thorleif Haug fourth and Einar Landvik fifth. American Anders Haugen took the bronze, but he was born in Bø, Telemark. The Ruud brothers led the way in the next few Olympics. Sigmund took the silver to teammate Alf Andersen in 1928, then Birger Ruud led a Norwegian sweep in 1932. In Nazi Germany in 1936, Birger won gold again, with Reidar Andersen third and Kaare Wahlberg fourth. A 12-year layoff didn’t hurt Birger much as he earned the silver in 1948 to teammate Petter Hugsted with Thorleif Schjelderup taking the bronze. Before 120,000 people at Holmenkollen in 1952, Arnfinn Bergmann took gold, Torbjørn Falkanger silver, while Halvor Næss tied for fourth.
The Ruud brothers then opened sporting goods stores. Norway amazingly didn’t medal in 1956, 1960, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1992, 1998, and 2002. Rising to the occasion in Lillehammer in 1994, Espen Bredesen took gold in the normal hill individual and silver in large hill individual, while Lasse Ottessen won silver on the normal hill.
Maybe fortunes are starting to change, as Norway has medaled in the last three Olympics. In 2006, Lars Bystøl took gold on the normal hill and bronze on the large hill, while Roar Ljøkelsøy captured bronze on the normal hill. The two joined Bjørn Einar Romøren and Tommy Ingebrigtsen for the bronze in large hill team. Four newcomers—Anders Bardal, Tom Hilde, Johan Remen Evensen, and Anders Jacobsen—repeated as bronze medalists in large hill team in 2010, and Bardal took bronze on the normal hill in 2014.
Nordic Combined (13-9-8-30)
Nordic Combined, which includes ski jumping and cross-country, is another event dominated by Norwegians in the first Olympiads. They won all of the first 12 medals. After a long dry spell, they have picked up hardware in five of the last seven Olympics.
Haug took gold in 1924, followed by teammates Thoralf Strømstad and Johan Grøttumsbråten, who led the sweeps in 1928 and 1932. Oddbjørn Hagen, Olaf Hoffsbakken, and Sverre Brodahl were on the medal stand in 1936.
Fred Børre Lundberg and Bjarte Engen Vik have led a revival in the last 26 years. In 1992, Knut Tore Apeland, Lundberg, and Tron Einar Elden led Norway to a silver in the ski jump and 3x10km relay. In front of the home fans in 1994, Lundberg took gold, Vik bronze in the normal hill jump, and Vik/Apeland/Lundberg the silver in the team jump and race. The Norwegians swept gold in 1998 as Vik won both the jump and 15km race in the individual event, and Lundberg, Kenneth Braaten, Halldor Skard, and Vik took the team medal for a ski jump and 4x5km race. After being shut out in 2002, Magnus Moan got a silver in the sprint and bronze in individual Gundersen in 2006. In 2014, Norway won four medals, gold and silver in individual large hill jump/10km from Jørgen Graabak and Moan, respectively, and gold from the team of Grabaak, Håvard Klemetsen, Magnus Krog and Moan in large hill/4x5km, and bronze from Krog in individual normal hill/10km.
Alpine skiing (10-9-10-2)
Stein Eriksen won giant slalom in 1952 at Norefjell then came to the U.S. to teach his craft here. Norway didn’t win a medal in downhill skiing again until 1992 when Kjetil André Aamodt won gold in the Super-G and Finn Christian Jagge in the slalom. Aamodt took bronze in giant slalom and Jan Einar Thorsen bronze in the Super-G. Two years later, the Norwegians swept the combined with Lasse Kjus, Aamodt, and Harald Christian Strand Nilsen. Aamodt took silver in downhill behind American of Norwegian descent Tommy Moe and took bronze behind Moe in Super-G. Hans Petter Buraas won gold in slalom in 1998, followed by Ole Kristian Furuseth, while Kjus earned silvers in the downhill and combined. Aamondt returned to the podium in 2002 with golds in combined and Super-G, while Kjus took silver in the downhill and bronze in giant slalom. Aamodt picked up another gold in the Super-G in 2006, Norway’s lone medal in alpine skiing in that Olympics.
The new Norwegian star in downhill was Aksel Lund Svindal, who captured three medals in 2010. Kjetil Jansrud took the silver in the giant slalom, then came back in 2014 to win the Super-G and take the bronze in downhill. Rising star Henrik Kristoffersen took bronze in slalom. With eight medals in individual events, Aamodt trails Bjørndalen and Dæhlie on the Olympics list.
Speed skating (25-28-27-80)
Johan Olav Koss is the one of the most decorated Norwegian speed skaters and is as respected for his humanitarian works off the ice. He took gold in the 1,500m and silver in 10,000m in 1992, then took three golds at Lillehammer in 1994 with world record times in all.
Roald Larsen got Norway off to a good start in 1924 with two silvers and three bronzes. He picked up a bronze in the 500m in 1928, giving him six overall, but the new stars were Bernt Evensen (gold in 500m, silver in 1,500m, bronze in 5,000m) and Ivar Ballangrud (gold in 5,000m, bronze in 1,500m). In 1932, most of the Norwegians boycotted with Finns, Swedes, and Japanese protesting Americans’ mass start, but Evensen and Ballangrud both took home silver medals. Norway swept the gold in 1936 with Ballangrud winning three golds and a silver for seven total.
Norway continued to rule the ice after the war with three golds in 1948 (Finn Helgesen, Sverre Farstad, Reidar Liaklev), a silver, and bronze from Odd Lundberg. It was Hjalmar Andersen’s turn to dominate the podium in 1952 in Oslo with three golds.
Knut Johannesen’s Olympic record led a sweep of the 5,000m in 1964 with Per Ivar Moe and Fred Anton Maier. Maier grabbed the silver and Johannesen the bronze in the 10,000m. With two medals each from 1956 and 1960, Johanessen had a total of six.
Netherlands began its ascension in 1968 with nine men’s and women’s medals. Yet Maier set a world record in winning the 5,000m. He also got a silver in the 10,000m. Legendary Dutch skater Ard Schenk took three golds in 1972, while Norway’s Roar Grønvold picked up silver in the 1,500m and 5,000m and Sten Stensen bronze in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In 1976, Jan Egil Storholt took gold in 1,500m in Olympic Record time, Stensen gold in 5,000m and silver in the 10,000m, and Jørn Didriksen silver in 1,000m.
Everyone trailed American (of Norwegian descent) Eric Heiden with golds in all five events in 1980, four Olympic records, and one world record. Kay Stenshjemmet and Tom Erik Oxholm had to be satisfied with silver and bronze in their races. Ådne Søndrål skated a world record time to win the 1,500m in 1998 after a silver in 1992, then picked up a bronze in 2002.
Norway hasn’t medaled in the 500m since 1968, the 1,000m since 1984, or the 10,000m since 2002. They have just four medals in the last five Olympics.
Medals in women’s speed skating weren’t given until 1960. Lisbeth Korsmo-Berg was the first Norwegian woman to medal with a bronze in the 3000m in 1976. Bjørg Eva Jensen set an Olympic record in winning the 3,000m in 1980.
Figure skating (2-2-1-6)
Norway’s most internationally known Olympian was figure skater Sonja Henie. She competed in the 1924 Games at age 11, then won the ladies’ singles in 1928, 1932, and 1936. Norway has not medaled in figure skating since 1936. From 1964 to 1992 Norway did not send any figure skaters to the Olympics. Anne Line Gjersem in 2014 was the first since 1992.
A history of dominance: Norway’s stunning array of Winter Olympics medals
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.