Norwegian athletes have been winning like crazy at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, prompting those unfamiliar with the achievements of Aksel Lund Svindal to scratch their heads and wonder about how the country of roughly 5.23 million raises so many olympic champions. Now, one answer to that question has set off a mild political dust-up stateside as right-wing commentators take issue with the theory that Norway’s noncompetitive approach to youth sports and socialist approach to healthcare leads to, well, winning.
Tore Ovrebo, Director of Elite Sports for the Norwegian Olympic Committee, started the debate when he told USA Today reporter filing a story on the country’s success that his countrymen were winners largely because they were not trained from birth to think about winning. In Norway, he explained, youth sports are used to encourage healthy socialization with child athletes and teams rarely ranked against each other and terms like first, second, and third relegated to the sidelines. Ovrebo claims that not competing from a young age encourages athletes to share tips with each other and commit to individual excellence, not dominance. Beyond that, Ovrebo says things like the country’s free healthcare and education help their uncompetitive social climate transcend sports entirely.
Breitbart, the right-wing publication previously run by Trump’s on-again-off-again ally Steve Bannon, pounced on Ovrebo’s theories. “For all their friendliness, the Norwegians and their healthcare system produced the whopping total of four medals in the 2016 Summer Games, all bronze,” Warner Todd Huston pointed out, adding that the “unfriendly, uninsured, score-keeping” US Olympic teams took home 121 medals. Huston neglected to mention that the American performance was, measured in medals by population. His theory that Norway does well in the Winter Olympics in part because it’s a cold country and kids acclimate to that, however, seems to hold up.
The vociferous reaction might have something to do with sensitivity about America’s poor showing at the games, where U.S. athletes have earned an underwhelming number of medals.
The argument over Norway’s success is interesting because both sides make good points. Competitiveness can absolutely train kids to be competitive and elite. At the same time, it can create problems. And we know this. According to a poll conducted by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70 percent of kids enrolled in youth sports programs quit by age 13. The reasons for quitting are individual in nature, but at least one major theme is that it’s just not fun.
This phenomenon is actually by design. As young athletes in America get older, they are often funneled into hyper-competitive programs (or not). The programs for non-elite kids receive less focus and are often underfunded.
Though the U.S. has come through with some big wins at this year’s games, this year’s performance will still go down as one of the more underwhelming. For Norway, however, the games have been a big win. Does that prove that lack of socialized healthcare is holding Americans back? It’s a reach, but when you are determined to win it’s always a good idea to look at other peoples’ playbooks.