Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Norwegian Olympic Pride

While this is not really a political issue, the primary focus of my blog, as a proud Norwegian-American, I feel compelled to make an exception and publish a post on Norway's very impressive performances in Winter Olympics competition.

In the just concluded Olympics held in Vancouver, Norway earned 9 gold medals, the same as the U. S., and 23 medals in all, fourth among all 82 participating countries, behind only the U. S., Germany, and Canada, the host country. Since the Winter Olympics started in France in 1924, Norway has earned over 300 medals, more than any other country.

This is rather amazing because Norway is such a small country with a relatively little pool of athletes to choose from, having a population of just 4.7 million, among the smallest of all the countries participating in Vancouver. As a reminder, the U. S. has a population of approximately 309 million (66 times as many), Germany has 82 million (17 times as many), and Canada, with home field advantage, has 34 million (7 times as many). Russia, a traditional Olympics powerhouse, well below Norway in medals, has a population of 142 million (30 times as many). As many readers have probably heard, Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev was so very unhappy with the Russian team's performance that he publicly encouraged the leaders of their national Olympic committee to resign, or he would help them step down!

Why is a small country like Norway so successful? Some say it's because there are so many high mountains in Norway with snow and ice. It's true that Norway is a mountainous country, but the mountains are not very high. There are more mountains and higher peaks with snow and ice in many other less successful larger in population countries, including France, Austria, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, as well as Russia and China. Neither is it that Norway is just dominating only one or two sports, though they have earned a great many medals through the years in cross-country skiing and biathlon, two of the country's specialties. Norway has also won quite a few medals in figure skating, speedskating, ski jumping, and, particularly in recent years, in alpine skiing.

Aside from its mountains, I think Norwegian athletes' success has much to do with culture, traditions, geography, weather, but most of all more specifically on a longstanding strong interest in exercise, fitness and sports, a stubborn determination to succeed, and tough character with a common willingness to endure difficult hardship for an important cause. Another important factor is that there's a winter sports club in nearly every city and town, and a government funded program which identifies talented athletes in their early teens and nurtures them through development. The fact that most of Norway's cities are located very close to wilderness and skiing areas no doubt helps. Perhaps traditionally high protein diets also play a role, as do skiing, hiking, walking and bicycling as popular means of transportation. The legacy of our Viking warrior ancestors may factor in as well. Of course, good coaching and an effective sports organization are also critical elements.

Well-known and highly regarded New York Times columnist David Brooks was also struck by Norway's success. In his article "The Hard and the Soft", published the 1st of March, Brooks wrote that "There are many reasons for Norway's excellence, but some are probably embedded in the story of Jan Baalsrud," which he summarized. The incredible story of Baalsrud was described in a book by David Howarth titled "We Die Alone."

Born in Oslo in 1917, Baalsrud was very active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement in German occupied Norway during World War II. In early 1943 he and three other Norwegian commandos signed on to a dangerous mission to destroy a German air control tower and recruit for the resistance movement. The mission was compromised when he and the others, seeking a trusted resistance contact, accidentally made contact with a shopkeeper of the same name who betrayed them to the Germans.

The next day their fishing boat, containing tons of explosives intended to destroy the air control tower, was attacked by a German vessel and sank. Baalsrud and the others swam ashore in ice cold waters, chased by the Nazis, but he was the only one able to evade capture. He evaded capture for about two months, hiking long distances while suffering from frostbite, snow blindness and exhaustion, as well as near starvation. In this time he even had to amputate nine of his toes with a pocket knife to stop the spread of gangrene to his feet. Thanks to the efforts of fellow Norwegian patriots he was transported on a stretcher towards the northern border with Finland where he was put in the care of some Lapps who with reindeer pulled him on a sled across Finland and into neutral Sweden where he was safe. Fortunately he survived the war and died peacefully in Norway in 1988 at 71. Talk about toughness, hardship, and perseverance!

Whatever the reasons for Norway's success, I would think the pride many of us have is quite understandable. "Heia Norge!"


Thomas Dale said...

Heja Norge! :)

Anonymous said...

Whatever the reason behind Norway's immense success, it is indisputable that they are an imposing force in the winter Olympics. I'm not sure you're aware that Torstin, JoAnne & I
were at Salt Lake to see Kjetil André Aamodt win the gold medal in the super combined. A fraction of a second ahead of Bode Miller. Witnessing the Norwegian Pride was heaven for your brother - Julian