Norwegian ski dominance
How the Norwegians rule the world in cross-country skiing and other winter sports
John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American
“Dere må henge med!” was the message to the stragglers in a group of 10-year-old boys and girls that had just passed me on the lighted trails in Oslo’s Nordmarka. Their team jackets read Årvoll across the back, and their coach, a tall woman with a grown-up version of the jacket, was breathing hard as she puffed out instructions to her group of halflings. Even the slowest kid in the group was skiing faster than I was.
Norwegians claim to be born with skis on, and that is not far from the truth. Miles of wide, well-groomed ski-trails abound throughout Norway. Businesses that sell waffles and warm drinks dot the trail network. Near major trailheads the scene is crowded with folks headed for places like “Skjennungstua” to enjoy baked goods and perhaps a black-currant toddy. Kids make up a good part of the crowd, some of them babies packed warmly in a “pulk” and dragged by mom or dad. So for a Norski, skiing does in fact come with their mother’s milk.
Norwegian dominance in the world of cross-country skiing surely springs from this “organic” engagement. Skiing is systematically fostered. It’s even part of the grade school program. Ski events for children, even for preschool kids, are held each year around the country. These can be races with numbered bibs or “turren,” where the goal is simply to complete a distance.
The trails and other facilities—so ubiquitous that they are almost taken for granted—are maintained by Norwegian Ski Federation. Norges Skiforbund, as it is called in Norwegian, is an organization supported by its nearly 200,000 members as well as money from national coffers. The Skiforbund comprises 16 regional groups called “skikrets” that together include more than 1,100 clubs.
How good is Norway?
By any measure, they are the best. In the Olympics, Norway has 107 of the 471 medals ever awarded for cross-country skiing. They have more of each medal than any other country but are heaviest at the top of the podium, with 40 gold and 38 silver. They set this trend early by taking five of the six medals awarded at the first winter games in 1924, leaving only one bronze for Finland.
Olympic dominance is even more pronounced if you look at the numbers relative to population: Norway can boast 21 Olympic medals per million people. By this measure, Sweden is only one-third as good as Norway with seven medals per million. If we count the medals of Russia and the Soviet Union as one, the total number rivals Norway (101), but relative to population size they get less than one-quarter of a medal per million people. The next best nation relative to population size is Finland, with nearly 14 medals per million.
Norway is also way out in front with regard to World Cup podium-places. The overall number of podiums captured by Norway (3,056) is more than twice that of next-best Sweden (1,437). Again, Norway is heaviest on first-place finishes, currently holding 491 first-, 387 second-, and 353 third-place finishes in competitions on the world stage. Sweden’s podium-places are more evenly distributed at 149, 140, and 150, respectively.
Who are these people?
Marit Bjørgen and Petter Northug are the top female and male skiers in Norway, giants in the sport from sprint to distance.
Northug loves the dramatic finish. In the 2010 Olympics, I watched him in the 50 km race, where he mostly hung in the pack but occasionally zoomed ahead only to fall back again and coast with disturbing ease among his competitors. In the final hundred meters, German Axel Teichman was out front double-poling with the skill and power worthy of the very best skiers. But Northug closed the gap and passed Teichman right before the finish line. Northug is now the most successful World Champion male skier, having surpassed the greatly admired Bjørn Dæhlie.
Marit Bjørgen has nearly twice the number of World Championship wins as Petter Northug, making her the winningest Nordic skier ever! Now 36, she has been on the world skiing stage for 17 years and won more than 156 FIS-sanctioned races. Bjørgen gave birth to her first child, Marius, in December 2015, and took the year off but has not retired.
The women of the Norwegian “landslaget” are in fact more decorated overall than their male colleagues. Therese Johaug, the next best female on the team, also has more medals than Northug (not as many first places, but she is also a couple years younger). If you compare the current women’s national team to the men’s in terms of total podiums, the result is 827 to 399 (first places 354 to 179).
What this tells me is that the “pipeline” channeling young talent toward international competition works just as well for Norwegian girls as it does for boys. My guess is that, by comparison, other countries are not as good at supporting their girls. Although the U.S. women’s team has shown a lot of young promise, most nations have nothing like the depth of talent produced in Norway. An illustrative anecdote is the competition faced by American women in the 2015 World Cup 4X5km relay. The U.S. team took third place after Norway and Finland. But Norway also took fourth, seventh, and 10th place; they mustered a total of four relay teams that qualified for a World Cup race! No other nation fielded more than one team.
What about other winter sports?
So Norway is full of ski talent fostered by its culture and climate. But why aren’t they great hockey players? Perhaps when skiing is so popular, there is just not enough talent left over for hockey. Also, the Swedes are too good at hockey. It would take a decades-long push to generate a talent pool that could measure itself against “söta bror” on Swedish ice. Norwegians probably unconsciously focus on winning at what they’re already best at. There are some really good hockey players from Norway, but they tend to make their careers in the NHL (Espen “Shampoo” Knutsen, now back in Oslo as General Manager of his old team Vålerenga, played for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks).
Other snow sports, such as ski-jumping, alpine skiing, and snowboarding, feature great Norwegians but not the depth of talent seen in Nordic skiing. With regard to alpine skiing, this is surely changing. Stars such as Axel Lund Svindal and Kari Traa are household names and role models for aspiring youth. Alpine venues, not only in Hemsedal and Lillehammer but also “kiddy hills” like Tryvannstua in Oslo, provide opportunities for young daredevils to develop their chops. Ski-jumping, although still of iconic status in Norway (any self-respecting town having its requisite jump), is not as strong as it once was.
It seems skiing is central to the Norwegian soul, in particular sports that challenge the will to endure and persevere. To the rest of the world, “Dere må henge med!”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.