Norway led the medals race like usual during China’s Winter Olympics’ opening weekend, but had fallen to third place by Monday morning and sixth by mid-afternoon. Results in some cases were as disappointing as the run-up to the games themselves, which are being held amidst massive Corona-related restrictions in an authoritarian country that’s sparked frustration and criticism.
There were some brights spots for Norwegian sports fans on Saturday, when cross-country skier Therese Johaug finally won the individual Olympic gold medal she lacked in a career otherwise marked by 14 gold medals in the World Championships. She may not be popular in China, after cutting what had become her controversial ties to Chinese firm Huawei, but she managed to bounce back after her disqualification from the 2018 Olympics, which was spurred by her use of a lip balm given to her by a team doctor that proved to contain a steroid.
Norway also won gold in the biathlon relay on Saturday and, later, a surprise bronze medal in speed skating. Hallgeir Engebråten from Kongsvinger, who hadn’t even qualified for the Olympics before Christmas, suddenly skated his way to third place in the 5,000-meter race. On Monday, Norway’s Marte Olsbu Røiseland also won bronze in the women’s 15k biathlon race, but had been favoured for gold.
There were disappointments, however, for Norway’s ski jumpers and, especially, when one of the top Norwegian cross-country skiers, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, literally seemed to run out of steam during the men’s 30-kilometer race punctuated by a change of skis midway. Klæbo, who just won the Tour de Ski and mined lots of gold at the last Olympics in South Korea, ended up placing an astonishing 40th, fully nine minutes behind the winner, Alexander Bolsjunov of Russia. Klæbo himself was so disgusted that he marched right by the press corps, muttering only an impolite comment in his local dialect and prompting Norwegian sports officials to apologize for his behaviour. Klæbo apologized on Monday as well.
It was Klæbo’s display of sulky poor sportsmanship after the men’s double 15K event, however, that illustrated some overall Norwegian frustration around this year’s Winter Olympics, which are supposed to be fun. Many argue that the games should have been postponed because of the ongoing pandemic. Athletes from many nations who’ve been put in isolation under Beijing 2020’s strict anti-infection rules have complained mightily about poor food, poor accommodation and poor Internet connections. Norway also complained about how athletes’ health information has gone astray.
This year also marks 70 years since Norway hosted the Winter Olympics in 1952, which did wonders to boost national spirits just seven years after the country’s occupation during World War II had finally ended. Many also remember Norway’s hosting of the winter games in Lillehammer in 1994 as “the best Olympics ever.” Oslo could also have hosted what the Norwegians simply call “OL” this year as well, if it hadn’t been for the International Olympic Committee’s excessive demands at the time and the huge expenses involved. The Norwegian government eventually refused to put up the financial guarantees demanded and Oslo’s Olympic bid for the 2022 games was halted. The Olympics has become too big in many ways for even a wealthy if small nation to handle.
Norwegian frustration, also over ‘sportswashing’
Complaints, meanwhile, continue to fly in Norway (and hit a crescendo during the past few months) over how authoritarian regimes use international sporting events as a means of trying to improve their image in the world. The word used to describe it, “sportswashing,” is now used often in Norwegian media, and sportswashing itself is widely condemned.
There was outrage just after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, which invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula right after the Olympics ended. Now questions are rising in Norway over whether this year’s Olympic host, China, is using the current conflict over Ukraine to its own advantage: Two researchers and a professor at Norway’s Institute for Defence Studies wrote in newspaper Aftenposten last week that China “can exploit room to act when the US is distracted by Russia and Ukraine, by putting even more pressure on Taiwan.” Officials in Beijing claim Taiwan is part of China, similar to how Putin continues to claim that Ukraine lies within Russia’s “sphere of influence.” Tension over a possible invasion of Ukraine were rising again this week.
The Norwegian defense experts don’t think China will invade Taiwan right after the current Olympics, like Russia invaded Crimea after its Olympics, but they do think China may “test Taiwan’s defense capability,” by violating Taiwan’s airspace or by mounting large military exercises. China can also exploit Russian isolation by boosting purchases of Russian gas, entering into new trade and investment deals with economically challenged Russia and, not least, welcoming Vladimir Putin to Beijing for their Olympics’ opening ceremonies. US President Joe Biden and several other western leaders stayed away in a boycott that Norway didn’t join.
Norwegian football fans tried to organize a boycott themselves of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, another authoritarian regime where migrant workers have been badly treated and even killed during construction of football stadiums. The boycott attempt failed, but Norway’s national football team made its concern for human rights clear before every qualifying match for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.
There’s been no lack of similar concern in Norway over China as host of this year’s Winter Olympics, given its own long record of human rights abuses, violent crackdown on Hong Kong’s once-thriving democracy and freedom, and Beijing’s oppression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had ended up with only China and Kazakhstan willing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, though, after Norway withdrew from the running. The IOC later changed its rules and the next Winter Olympics will be held in Cortina, Italy.
Athletes can end up most frustrated of all
Reaction was initially muted in Norway when the IOC announced it had chosen China over Kazakhstan. That’s changed during the ensuing years, especially after China has been accused of genocide against its Uighur minority in Xinjiang and after Beijing officials broke their promises of maintaining a “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. Norwegians, along with others all over the world, have been deeply disturbed by Beijing’s destruction of democracy in what used to be one of the most open, free and lively cities in Asia. Last week Amnesty International ran full page ads in Norway highlighting “three things China doesn’t want you to know about” during the Olympics: A million of its Muslims held in internment and “re-education” camps, Chinese authorities’ rampant use of surveillance and censorship, and all the arrests of Chinese who have championed freedom and democracy.
Meanwhile, Norway’s own government has let itself by bound by a controversial agreement it signed with Chinese leaders in late 2016 to end six years of a diplomatic freeze with China. Chinese leaders were furious after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed at the time and later died in custody. Chinese authorities, refusing to understand that the Norwegian government itself has nothing to do with decisions made by the Nobel Committee, were determined to punish Norway as a country for the embarrassing international recognition that Liu received. After signing the agreement not to comment on China’s internal affairs, Norway’s Conservatives-led government at the time was accused within Norway of opting for profit over principles.
Norway’s new Labour Party-led government has remained reluctant to publicly criticize China, since leaders in Beijing won’t tolerate criticism and react badly. There have been some signs, though, that the Norwegian government is getting tougher against China, with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre referring to China in a recent newspaper commentary as “an authoritarian giant that’s tightening the screws on human rights in its own land, and making an increasingly heavy mark in the region and the world.” Støre won’t be attending the Olympics in Beijing himself.
In the end, it’s the athletes who are left juggling their own principles and life-long desires to win Olympic medals. As a small country but a superpower at any Winter Olympics, there’s been hope “Team Norway” may be able to promote democracy and human rights during the games. Norwegian political commentator Lars West Johnsen declared in newspaper Dagsavisen last week week that fans back home may be looking forward to signs of protest against China just as much as they look forward to medals.
Several Norwegian athletes led by team representative Sjur Rothe did challenge their own coaches and sports leaders to speak up about human rights and freedom of expression both before and during the games. Leading the charge was skiing champion Klæbo himself, after he publicly challenged Norwegian sports officials to take a stand against human rights abuses in China last summer. “There’s no doubt that I think Norwegian sports officials could take a much clearer position on what they believe,” Klæbo told newspaper VG in September. “That’s what I’ve questioned.”
It took some scolding from the coach of Norway’s national football team to prod Norway’s cross-country skiing boss Espen Bjervig into conceding last October that some sort of human rights promotion should take place, coordinated with the alpine, ski-jumping, combined and snowboarding teams. It remained unclear what if any form it will take, especially after China issued threats against such protests just before the Olympics began. All athletes have since been cautioned, also by their own leaders, against criticizing China’s regime until they arrive back home.