It’s not oil, fish, or aquavit that’s behind the Norwegian sports machine, which delivered the most medals per capita of any nation at the 2010 Olympic Games—at least not entirely.
Instead, a healthy portion of the funding for Norway’s sports organizations comes from Norsk-Tipping, the state-owned gambling company. Norsk-Tipping dedicates 45.5 percent of its annual profits to sports—more than $241 million U.S. dollars in 2009 alone.
That’s one of the reasons that quadruple Olympic-medalist Petter Northug, currently competing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, has been criticized by Norwegian officials for his enthusiasm for the game, according to Tormod Brenna, a reporter for the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.
Poker isn’t offered by Norsk-Tipping, and it’s illegal in Norway to play the game for money.
However, residents can play online poker on foreign websites, an indirect result of which could be the diversion of funds away from Norwegian sports—assuming those players would otherwise be gambling with Norsk-Tipping.
In April, Norwegian Ski Federation General Secretary Inge Andersen spoke out against Northug’s hobby in an interview with the website Nettavisen, telling a reporter that “it is important to be aware that most sports in Norway are built on profits from the Norwegian national lottery.”
“The surplus in the Norwegian National Lottery goes back to community purposes in Norway,” Andersen said.
Others pointed out further contradictions, such as the fact that youth sports organizations in Northug’s hometown, Mosvik, receive funding from Norsk-Tipping—some through a special program called the “Grassroots Share.” Grassroots Share allows gamblers to dedicate five percent of their stake towards a specific sports club or organization of their choice, and a number of ski clubs are participants.
By most accounts, the Norwegian public rallied around Northug after the criticism by Andersen and others. But there’s no question that his trip to Las Vegas has driven up interest in poker in Norway—Northug’s face has been on the front page of sports and newspaper websites for the past few days.
In an interview with FasterSkier, Northug said that he doesn’t concern himself with the impact that poker might have on other people, or on politics.
“I love to play it and I love the game. For me, it’s important to have other interests than just cross-country skiing,” he said. “I have a vocation, and then I also love to be able to do other things.”
It was too much of a stretch, Northug continued, to draw a thread between his poker hobby and the cash flow to Norsk-Tipping.
“That’s too far—I can’t go and think about something like that,” he said.
As one of his sponsors, the Norwegian men’s magazine Vi Menn paid for Northug’s visit to Las Vegas and his entry into the World Series. But according to Thorkild Gundersen, a reporter for the publication, Vi Menn’s relationship with Northug stems from his appeal as a cross-country skier, not as a poker player. The magazine, Gundersen said, had no intention of influencing attitudes towards the game through its support of Northug.
“We don’t try to change politics,” he said.
But intentions aside, Gundersen argued emphatically that Northug’s participation in the tournament—and the hype it generated—would have a real impact on the public’s acceptance of poker in Norway.
“In Norway, there’s a lot of fantasy about poker as games with guns. This is helping the image of poker,” Gundersen said. “The debate…will come because of this.”
In recent years, many of Norway’s neighbors have made changes to their laws governing poker.
In Sweden, for example, poker’s popularity has grown quickly over the past decade. State companies allow the game in their casinos, and also launched an online poker website in 2006 in response to growing demand. Government gambling firms in Denmark and Finland have also taken steps towards introducing online poker.
Vi Menn has never shied away from politically sensitive issues like this one, according to Alex Oysta, its editor—the magazine is “politically un-correct in some ways,” he said.
There’s also no question that the criticism of Northug and the accompanying media coverage has been good for Vi Menn. According to Gundersen, the magazine’s web traffic is up, and its logo—crisply rendered on Northug’s poker shirt—is splashed all over newspapers and sports sites in Norway.
“Our brand has never had such visibility—we are all over the place these days,” Gundersen said.
Despite Gundersen’s enthusiasm, though, it remains to be seen whether any significant changes will result from Northug’s Vegas trip. While acknowledging that the hype would be a boon to foreign gambling sites, Brenna, the Norwegian newspaper correspondent, said that he doubted it would make much of a difference to the country’s politicians.
Meanwhile, Northug plays on, uncowed—his second day at the World Series comes later this week. The man, Gundersen said, has an uncanny ability to maintain his equanimity amidst a media frenzy.
“His ability to not give a damn what people say—he’s extremely good at not reading websites, not reading newspapers,” Gundersen said. “He doesn’t want everyone in Norway to like him—that’s not a goal.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.