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Volume 21 No. 43
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Pyeongchang lessons: Norway, Norway, Norway

Scandinavian country of 5 million consistently outperforms the world at the Winter Games. Culture, marketing and overall happiness are factors.

With the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang now a fond memory or a distant object in those rearview mirrors, we wanted to analyze what we could learn from the winners.

Let’s start with a few trivia questions:

1. Before 2018, the record for most medals at a Winter Olympiad was held by the United States from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Which country broke that record in Pyeongchang?

2. Since the beginning of the Winter Olympic Games in 1924, which country has captured the most total medals? 

3. The three most decorated Winter Olympians, with 15, 13 and 12 medals, respectively, are all natives of which country?

The answer to each question is the same: Norway.

Yes, the Scandinavian country with a population of about 5 million people. A landmass with an equivalent population to each of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-largest cities in North America: Houston, Toronto and Atlanta. Or, for our East Coast readers, about one quarter of greater New York City.

Five-time Olympian Marit Bjørgen’s five medals in South Korea brought her Olympic total to 15, the most in Winter Games history by any athlete.
Photo: getty images

If you think about the scale of Norway’s performance from 1924 to 2018 — nearly a century — you arguably have the most impressive underdog story in the history of sport. Unless, of course, you want to use the explanation that Norwegians have more snow or ice than other countries so naturally they are good at winter stuff.

That’s a nice get-out-of-jail card but doesn’t really hold up when we think about the winter conditions in Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland or the U.S. For the U.S. and Canada, you could argue North America features far more snow and ice than Norway.

The real question to ask is this: What makes Norway’s extraordinary Olympic success possible? Well, we did some research and created a few takeaways.

Let’s start with the easy ones:

First off, Norway, like many other Nordic countries, is considered happy. In fact, in the United Nations’ most recent World Happiness Report (which studies income, life expectancy, freedom, social support, trust and generosity), Norway was considered the second-happiest place on earth, finishing just behind Finland. Evidently, Disneyland was not considered a country.

Why are the Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Icelanders so blissful? Well, one savant noted, “Northern European countries, where the emotional range is more modulated, don’t have the peaks and valleys that other European countries have.”

(If you’re curious, the U.S. was No. 18 out of 156).

The second reason is easy: weather and geography. Norway is a winter country with great mountains, trails and snow. We’ll leave it at that.

Third is sport culture. Yes, Norway is dealing with the challenges of getting kids outside (thank you, internet!) like everyone else, but skiing (downhill, biathlon and cross-country) and speedskating are a significant part of the Norwegian culture and elite athletes in those sports are celebrities and household names. The adage “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet” has been written often.

But there is something else, and Tore Ovrebo, the Norwegian Olympic Committee’s director of elite sports, told USA Today’s Dan Wolken at the Pyeongchang Games that many “Norwegian kids are doing sports, so we have a very broad recruiting base. They can compete, but we don’t make them No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 before they’re in their 13th year. We think it’s better to be a child in this way because then they can concentrate on having fun and be with their friends and develop.”

That sounds good for developing happiness but would never fly in ultra-competitive America where we send 8-year-olds to sports psychiatrists if they don’t make the under-9 travel team. Yeah, that’s us. The country where parents are considered failures if their 10-year-old isn’t immediately identified as the next Tiger or Messi.

Fourth, money. The government of Norway has prioritized high performance sport with significant funding. Granted, the country is financially sound, with most Norwegians able to live well and use free time and disposable income for sport. On the other hand, elite American sport is not funded by the American government (and there are reasons for that) which means the always-under-attack NCAA must do a lot of heavy lifting for the USOC.

Fifth, facilities. As we all know, athletes need places to play, train, learn and participate. Trails, rinks, mountains, resorts and snow are easily (and freely) accessible in Norway. The American population is denser and, at a certain level, access is not free. To play sports in the U.S., someone must pay.

Sixth? Norway creates sport celebrities who appear to genuinely care about the athletes coming after them. Norwegian cross-country skiers Marit Bjørgen, who captured the most recent of her 15 career Olympic medals in South Korea, and Johannes Høsflot Klaebo, a 21-year-old heartthrob with close to 300,000 Instagram followers (and three gold medals), are accessible and friendly public legends.

A recent analysis by Bloomberg noted Norway won 7.33 medals per million people of population and 10.38 medals per $100 billion of GDP, which is exponentially higher than the U.S. values of 0.07 medals per million of population and 0.12 medals per $100 billion of GDP.

You can argue smaller countries are able to generate better medals per millions (the Australians have done this for years with the Summer Games), but it flies in the face of every MBA program’s reliance on “economies of scale.”

Perhaps Norway’s Olympic success is just a cultural fluke. We doubt that. It’s more likely that economies of scale don’t always work when countries don’t commit to holistic excellence.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former chief marketing officer for the USOC. Norm O’Reilly is professor and assistant dean of executive programs at the University of Guelph and partner consultant at T1. Their book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was published by Ohio University Press.