During last night’s Winter Games closing ceremony—sometime after William Shatner and before we muted the set during the frightening number featuring the nightmarish giant beaver—household discussion turned to the overall medals standings. (As it does.) Obviously, the United States did well over the last two weeks, raking in 37 shiny discs of honor, a national record for hibernal achievement. Canada, the genial hosts, did just fine with a table-leading 14 golds, capped off by yesterday’s hockey win. And then there are those perennial Teutonic overlords, Ze Germans, quietly biding their time and sharpening their women’s bobsled performance until another opportunity for world conquest presents itself. Sorry, sorry—DON’T MENTION THE WAR. I always forget.
But as we contemplated Vancouver’s final tally, one name leapt off the digital page: Norway. Twenty-three medals, nine gold. From a country of 4.5 million people. That’s about one medal for every 200,000 Norwegians. If the United States hogged Winter Olympic glory in Norwegian proportions, it would have won…well, 1500 medals, which doesn’t make much sense, but certainly puts the standings in some perspective.
How is this possible? The conventional explanation, of course, would be that Norway is incredibly goddamn cold, and therefore fated to excel at such frigid pursuits as biathlon and Nordic combined. And it is certainly true that countries like, say, Brazil may be much bigger than little Norge, but will never overcome its cultural identification with skis and skates for simple climatic reasons.
But think about it: there must be more to this world-beating performance than mere weather. After all, the United States has far, far more people living in cold places than there are Norwegians on earth—the State of Washington, all by itself, is bigger than Norway, and Washington abounds with frozen slopes and frosty-cheeked ski bums. So why isn’t Washington generating Olympic medalists by the dozen?
And when you look more closely, this peculiar Nordic kingdom looks all the more athletically remarkable. In fact, by some measures, Norway isn’t just a disproportionately great Winter Games country; it’s relatively better than every country in the world at all sports, in general, period, when you adjust for population.
What? In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski tallied up world championships in a wide variety of globally significant sports, from rugby union to baseball to karate to soccer to the Olympics. They then performed some unscientific but commonsensical adjustments (rating the US tops in basketball, for example, even though the late Yugoslavia owns more international titles) and rated national performances per capita.
Guess who came out on top? Yes, those microscopic (but increasingly sinister) Norwegians. According to Kuper and Szymanski, Norway’s showing was so dominant that it might have won even if their analysis downgraded Winter Olympics medals. It turns out that Norway—cultured, civilized, polite, modernist-designed Norway—is a nation of fanatical jocks. Other analysis by the authors found that Norwegians are Europe’s most enthusiastic soccer fans—and, what’s more, some of the world’s most enthusiastic soccer players. One in ten Norwegians is a registered player with a competitive soccer club, a figure which includes one out of every 27 Norwegian women, pretty much the world standard.
How is all this anomalous sporting excellence possible?
Well, it turns out that when a country decides to make sure its people can play sports, that country tends to do very well at sports. Global competitive success is a mere by-product of a generally enlightened social policy. As Kuper and Szymanski write:
It’s Norwegian government policy that every farmer, every fisherman, no matter where he lives in the country, has the right to play sports. Norway will spend what it takes to achieve that…Even in the unlikeliest corners of the country there’s generally a [sports facility] around the corner from your house…A kid can play and train on a proper team for well under $150 a year…People all over the world might want to play sports, but to make that possible requires money and organization that poor countries don’t have.
So that raises the question: what about rich countries, like the United States? This week, The New York Times noted that many top American Olympians are the products of highly independent training, often having little to do with their sports’ official teams or federations:
The United States is one of the few nations that does not publicly finance its Olympic athletes. That state of affairs has given rise to a fluid, entrepreneurial system that is alternately blamed for athletes’ shortcomings and praised as their greatest advantage. Competitors with enough star power can pursue independent careers while promising athletes are nurtured in more traditional development programs.
On its face, this sounds like a benign example of American exceptionalism; and, hey, this description includes the word “entrepreneurial,” so that must be very exciting! The problem, from my point of view, is that access to those “traditional development programs” is often governed by money. Ask any American family with a half-decent youth soccer player how much they spend on that kid’s training. Answers vary; all will be much, much more than $150 a year. Hell, I spend more than that to play rec-league indoor soccer once a week. We may have an “entrepreneurial” system, but many kids—and many adults—are effectively priced out of participatory American sports.
I know that social-policy ideas from Europe are tinged with Satanic evil, but could a quasi-Norwegian sports-access system unite Democrats and Republicans? They may not be able to agree on health care reform, but surely both parties would like to see America kick more ass. On further review, the noteworthy thing about Team USA’s performance in Vancouver isn’t that it won so much; it’s that it didn’t win nearly as much as it should have.