If you happen to have an HBO subscription, this evening, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will air a segment titled, The Norwegian Way. You can tune in/log in at 10 p.m. ET/PT for HBO’s exclusive.
The impetus for Real Sports’ investigation appears to have been Norway’s overwhelming success at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Norway won an unprecedented 39 medals in PyeongChang. In cross-country skiing alone, Norway won 14 medals. Russia was second with eight medals.
“When we are number one in front of United States, and Russia, and China that is for us amazing,” Inge Andersen, the former head of Norway’s national athletic’s federation said in the HBO documentary. “It is important that this little small country up here close to the North Pole can show that we can be in the big world society.”
Olympic sport is cut throat and Norway is right there in the mix when it comes to the fight for medals and developing competitive advantages. But the story HBO tells is of a youth sports system that is less industry and more the literal translation of kindergarten: “a child’s garden”.
Take for example that Norway has enacted a Children’s Rights in Sport. One of those rights is that youth sports are “on the children’s terms”. The HBO piece projects a Norwegian youth sports culture honoring the dignity of children while simultaneously creating rarefied Olympic medalist.
The Aspen Institute’s Tom Farrey is featured in The Norwegian Way. Farrey recently penned a piece in the New York Times in which he suggested that children in the U.S. might benefit from adopting some aspects of Norway’s model.
“I saw the dream,” Farrey claimed in The Norwegian Way when comparing what he had gleaned globally to his perception of how Norway was exposing children to sports.
Yes, the HBO piece paints a picture of Norwegian wellness and a focus on the whole child at least through the age of twelve. Between the ages of six and twelve, kids are not ranked, scores are not kept, and ski race times are not posted publicly.
“Cannot, and if they do, we tell them not to,” Tore Øvrebø, head of Norway’s Olympic training program, told Real Sports when asked what happens if a local club posts scores or rankings.
There is some compelling discourse between HBO’s reporter Jon Frankel and Øvrebø that speaks to the earnest nature of Norway’s system.
“An American parent would say, ‘come on give me a break, the world is about winning and losing and you have to learn that at a young age’,” said Frankel.
“For the results at the Olympics Games, I want the American parents to continue thinking this way,” said Øvrebø.
“This all sounds nice and soft and friendly and rosy,” notes Frankel.
“Yeah, but it should be a good environment. It should be safe. It shouldn’t be hostile. It is not soft. It is right,” replied Øvrebø.
The U.S. is far more diverse than Norway. The sports landscape comes with challenges Norwegians are not exposed to.
“Norway is not the United States,” Farrey wrote in his NYT’s piece. “One advantage sport leaders in Norway acknowledge is their country’s relatively small size, which helps get key stakeholders on the same page about sports policy. Also, families don’t need to chase athletic scholarships because college, like health care for youth, is free. Sports is not seen as a way out of a tough neighborhood. Norway is a wealthy nation with oil, gambling and other revenue streams that can be mobilized.
“But so is the United States. We have just given the marketplace full rein to work its magic, untethered from the needs of public health. So money chases money. Children from low-income homes now are half as likely to play sports (34 percent) as those at the upper end, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“I left Norway wondering if a simple declaration of children’s rights could re-center priorities, close gaps and produce more elite athletes. Just as Title IX did more than four decades ago, for women.”
If you get an opportunity to watch The Norwegian Way, take the 15-minute respite. It is a discussion starter. As Farrey suggests, the ideas presented might make you wonder.
Broadcast time: May 21, 10P ET/PT on HBO. Some Real Sports episodes are available on Hulu and Amazon.