Competing in the grueling annual 54 kilometre ‘Birken’ cross country ski race (Birkebeinerrennet) has long been regarded as a status symbol among athletic Norwegians. Several studies into competitors’ motivations revealed most are not in fact driven by a desire for prestige, but simply the goal of reaching a training target.
Nearly 20,000 participants were due to take part in the endurance race over the mountain between Rena and Lillehammer this weekend. Thousands more take part in relay teams. Saturday’s race was booked out by last April, and a record 2300 competitors were to race in Friday’s event. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that much of the commentary in recent years has focused on the esteem gained by taking part, but three separate studies have now said it’s a myth that the “status hunt” is the principal motivation.
Mari Bernsten conducted in-depth interviews with 12 of her fellow Birken participants as part of her Masters thesis. “My starting point is that so much is written about money and not least that apparently many participants are driven by the status chase,” she explained. “I wondered why people with high economic and cultural capital chose to take part in such a mass demonstration.”
Bernsten thought people who worked in competitive, hierarchical industries would stand out, compared to those in the teaching profession which has a flatter structure. “The conclusion showed however to be the following: the majority of those who participate in Birken, independent of where they work, have the race as a training target,” she explained. “The driving force is to train and stay fit.”
Those interviewed said they saw it as a plus that cross country skiing is a social sport, where you can train and compete with friends. Bernsten said while most did not agree with the description of a status hunt, “nevertheless there were many who thought that some others did it for the sake of status.”
Supports Birken findings
The Birken organizers engaged a market research company to do a similar study last year, surveying 1600 participants. Subjects were allowed to choose several answers explaining their drive. “As many as 85 percent say they use Birken as a motivational training target,” said information spokeswoman Ingunn Rønningen Kleven. “When it comes to their own motivation, the training target has sat high on the scale the whole time. If you want to benefit and get a good experience, you must train the whole year.”
Professor Rolf Rønning from Lillehammer University College (Høgskolen i Lillehammer) said his research showed the typical Birken participant was male, highly educated, often a teacher, trains for an hour every day, has many other hobbies, and most importantly enjoys exercising and self-competition. “Financial newspapers write much about the competition between alpha males,” said Rønning. “They constitute a small part, but make so much of it. That’s why this status gets so much attention.”
Berntsen found a difference did arise when it came to how different professions supported their staff to participate in the race. “Within leading companies, employees are encouraged to take part,” she said. “There that’s a ‘push factor’ as I’ve chosen to describe it. The businesses want staff to be active, and sometimes the businesses are also ‘sponsors’ which includes paying the registration fee. In schools there are virtually no such push factors. There is no encouragement to participate, and there is in any case no financial support. That’s despite it being important for everyone to be active.”