Norway's Winning Olympic Recipe

(1.03.2010)

The 2010 Winter Olympics medal count is in, and while the top three medal winners – the US, Germany and Canada – may not be a surprise, the fourth runner up might be: residents of a small section of mid-Norway called Trondelag, home to about 400,000 people, accounted for 15 of Norway’s 23 Olympic medals. In a Feb. 24 article, Wall Street Journal reporters Matthew Futterman and Kevin Helliker called the country’s Olympic success, “The Mystery of Norway”. What’s the secret to this success? Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) explain the mystery behind the magic.

Frode Moen, head of mid-Norway’s Olympic Sports Centre (Olympiatoppen), defended his PhD in coaching at NTNU on Feb. 12, the day the Winter Olympics started. He says part of the reason behind mid-Norway’s dominance in the Winter Games is that the region has a long history of producing top-level athletes – which is an inspiration to today’s medalists, such as cross-country Olympic gold medalists Marit Bjørgen and Petter Northug.

Success breeds success
“That is an important inspiration for new athletes,” he says. “But this is alone would not produce the results we have seen in the Olympic games.” Moen says that the investment of the Norwegian government in regional sports centres that nurture athletes and provide them top level training and coaching has paid off. In fact, the largest regional Olympic regional sports centre is in Trondheim, the city that is in the heart of Trondelag and is home to NTNU.

“We work hard to support the work of coaches and teams to develop new top-level athletes, especially in winter sports,” Moen says.

Well-educated coaches
The central Norway Olympic Sports Centre also supports the region’s many public high schools that offer a sports education programme. Central Norway has the most sports-related public high school offerings of any area in the country. High school students can pursue programmes that are focused on ski jumping, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, alpine skiing and biathlon. In fact, both Marit Bjørgen and Petter Northug graduated from a sports high school. Moen says these programmes offer students both time to develop their talents as well as the benefit of experienced, well-educated coaches.

Because high school coaches work for the Norwegian public school system, their formal employment requirements are extremely strict. These coaches also almost always have experience from their own careers as athletes. And – because there are more public high schools with sports programmes in central Norway than any other part of the country, there are a lot of experienced coaches who can support each other, and who are supported by the Olympic Sports Centre system, Moen says. “This gives central Norway a unique opportunity to grow the talent of the athletes who are willing to pursue Olympic and world championship medals,” he says.

Training supported by research
The Olympic Sports Centre in central Norway offers coaching programmes in cooperation with NTNU. NTNU researchers have also worked with trainers, coaches and athletes in developing optimal training programmes and equipment, says Øyvind Sandbakk, himself a PhD candidate at NTNU and expert at the mid-Norway Olympic Sports Centre. One example is research being conducted by Luca Oggiano, a PhD candidate in Fluid Mechanics at NTNU. Oggiano’s research involves customizing low drag suits with different textiles and different surface characteristics for different parts of the body, which leads to different aerodynamic properties for specific parts of the body. Oggiano also worked with Norway’s ski cross team to create a suit that was able to reduce the athlete’s drag by 15 per cent, which helped Norwegian competitors to win medals in the Olympic ski cross competition.

This support for athletics doesn’t stop at the high school level, however. For example, NTNU offers top athletes the option to participate in “Team NTNU,” where they can combine a half-time course load with competitive cross-country skiing.

Continued support from politicians
Tore O. Sandvik, County Mayor of Sør-Trøndelag, is supportive of promoting competitive sports programmes throughout the Trondelag region. “Our ambition is to be one of the most sports friendly winter regions,” he says. “The more athletes we have the greater chance we have of finding the best ones.” Support for sports activities such as cross-country skiing goes beyond competitions, says Sandvik. “The more people who are active in sports, the better the region’s general health,” he says. “By supporting and helping talented athletes we also participate in creating role models for people who enjoy participating in sports at all levels. It’s also much more fun watching our own sports stars. Definitely a winning idea!”

Trondelag Olympic medalists

Marit Bjørgen, cross-country skiing (3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)
Emil Hegle Svendsen, biathlon (2 gold, 1 silver)
Tora Berger, biathlon (1 gold)
Petter Northug, cross-country skiing (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)
Torgeir Nergaard, curling (1 silver)
Anders Bardal, ski jumping (1 bronze)

It’s also worth noting that the alpinist Aksel Lund Svindal (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), also had his high school education at one of central Norway‘s many public sport high schools. Ole Einar Bjørndalen (biathlon, 1 gold, 1 silver) also lived and worked in central Norway for several years.