More debate over skiing supremacy

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NEWS ANALYSIS: While many Norwegians simply enjoy some skiing on winter weekends, there’s no question the country now ranks firmly as a skiing powerhouse internationally. Norway’s impressive professional winter sports season this year has set off new discussion over why the Norwegian athletes are so good, and whether it’s good for the sports world as a whole.

The vast majority of skiers in Norway enjoy relaxing tours over snow-decked terrain, like here on a field not far from Skedsmo, northeast of Oslo last weekend. The country is an international powerhouse in the sport, however, winning more medals this season than ever before. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The vast majority of skiers in Norway simply enjoy relaxing tours over snow-decked terrain, like here on a field not far from Skedsmo, northeast of Oslo, last weekend. The country is an international powerhouse in the sport, however, winning more medals this season than ever before. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“Do we really want to be any better?” asked sports commentator Reidar Sollie in newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday, as the country got back to work after another weekend of stunning success on the ski slopes and trails both at home and abroad. The tally for medals won in world championship competition so far this season was set at 32, 17 of them gold, as of Sunday. A few world championship titles in winter sports remain to be decided, so the medal count may grow.

Norway has been known as a skiing nation for years, ever since the first Winter Olympics was organized at Chamonix in 1924 and Norwegians won 17 medals. But there have been swings in the sport, and Norway hit a low at the Olympics in Calgary in 1988 with no gold mined at all. That, noted Sollie, led to a concerted effort by Norway’s sports bureaucrats and politicians to reverse the trend and go for the gold. When Lillehammer was chosen shortly thereafter as  the site of the Olympics in 1994, more public support and not least funding for facilities flowed into winter sports, and Norway skied and skated to victory.

It's a long way from Skedsmo to Val di Fiemme and the likes of Marit Bjørgen, shown here winning the women's 30-kilometer race over the weekend and claiming her third individual gold medal at the World Championships - but skiing remains an integral part of the Norwegian culture. PHOTO: fiemme2013.com/Newspower Canon

It’s a long way from Skedsmo to Val di Fiemme and the likes of Marit Bjørgen, shown here winning the women’s 30-kilometer race over the weekend and claiming her third individual gold medal at the World Championships – but skiing remains an integral part of the Norwegian culture. PHOTO: fiemme2013.com/Newspower Canon

Sollie and some of his fellow commentators attributed Norway’s success since, despite some ongoing swings, to several factors: The country’s deeply engrained sports culture, volunteers all over the country who are active in organizing competitions at every level and encouraging young talent, Norway’s oil-fueled affluence that has provided more financial resources and more free time, and a feeling that cross-country skiing in particular is the country’s national sport.

“We have time and money,” Sollie wrote. “In Italy, folks play football or go cycling.” In Norway, they go skiing.

Statistics back up the claim: A recent survey conducted by research firm MMI for Sportsbransjen AS indicated that fully 700,000 Norwegians over the age of 18 (in a country with a total population of just 5 million) own two or more pair of skis that are in frequent use. Norwegians, according to the survey, have the most pairs of cross-country skis per capita in the world. An astonishing 70 percent of Norwegians have at least one pair of cross-country skis that they use themselves. In addition come all the skis belonging to children.

Norwegians don't make a habit of kissing their skis, like Therese Johaug did here after winning more World Championship gold, but many do love the sport. PHOTO: FIS Nordic World Ski Championships/Newspower Canon

Norwegians don’t make a habit of kissing their skis, like Therese Johaug did here after winning more World Championship gold, but many do love the sport. PHOTO: FIS Nordic World Ski Championships/Newspower Canon

“Norwegians appreciate the great outdoors and exercise, and most of all, the combination,” Bård Kristiansen of Sportsbransjen, an organization that promotes sport in Norway, told news bureau ANB last week. “Our solid economy has also allowed folks to get out and enjoy sports, and also treat themselves to more ski equipment.” Around 20 percent of the population has more than two pairs of skis.

Norway also is a country where local municipalities take on responsibility for grooming thousands of kilometers of ski trails as long as there’s snow on the ground, often in cooperation with local ski associations. The world’s first lighted ski trail, noted Sollie, opened from Frognerseteren in Oslo in 1947. Today, the lighted trails surrounding mosts towns and cities in Norway are busy in the evenings after work, often with amateur athletes training for local races organized every weekend.

Norway’s strong skiing tradition can also explain the local fury at any suggestion of doping among Norwegian athletes. Last week’s airing of a documentary in Sweden that implicated some of Norway’s greatest skiers from the glory days of the 1990s set off collective howls of protest within sports organizations, the media and among the athletes themselves, along with threats of legal challenges.

Concerns over domination nonetheless
Norway’s skiing supremacy, especially after the recent torrent of world championship victories, has nonetheless sparked some criticism and concerns, first after Norway’s medal haul in the biathlon, then when alpine skiing star Aksel Lund Svindal was breaking new records at his own sports’ world championships in Austria, and now after Norway’s domination of the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships at Val di Fiemme. Some eyes rolled when Norwegian sports commentators themselves began to question the merits of their athletes’ near-constant presence on the winners’ platforms, linking it to false modesty or janteloven (the feeling that no one should think too highly of themselves), but now the commentators have been joined by some powerful international voices, including the FIS (International Skiing Federation) president himself, Gianfranco Kasper.

Norway’s domination of Nordic skiing, Kasper told reporters, is very strong at the moment, he said. Even though he noted that such domination swings among nations, he said it can be “a big problem” if it continues. He was glad when Sweden’s Johan Olsson “finally” won a gold medal in the men’s 50-kilometer race on Sunday, and no one seemed to miss Norwegians on the platform. It was time, Norwegians themselves conceded, that someone else got some glory.

As for Sollie’s question about whether Norwegians “really want to be better,” the answer seems to be “yes.” Skiing queen Marit Bjørgen is already looking forward to next year’s Olympics and reportedly considering dropping the tough Tour de Ski (which she missed this year because of heart trouble) to save her strength and boost her chances of more Olympic gold. Her colleagues are keen as well.

Kasper did have some advice for skiers in all the other nations that mostly saw themselves beaten by Norway: Copy the Norwegian model. “The other countries should look to Norway and do just the same,” he said. They have to “bring their athletes up to the Norwegian level” with more training and everything else involved with top sport, Kasper said.

Kasper’s apparent need to offer such advice, with Norway seen as setting the standard for the rest of the world, may be the proudest victory of all.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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