Philosophy Produces Norwegian Sport Surge
By Karl Hejlik
Despite the obvious association between Norway and cold weather and ice, Norwegian athletes have had a tradition of getting snow kicked in their faces in international competitions. In Alpine skiing, no Norwegian won a medal in any Olympic Winter Games from 1952-1992. Performance in other sports were poor as well, with consistently low medal counts, especially in the 1970’s and 80’s.
But in the last two Olympic Winter Games, Norway has seemingly become a power overnight, winning 20 medals in 1992 and 26 in 1994, more than any other nation at the Lillehammer Games. At Albertville in 1992, Norway’s alpine skiers ended their 40 year draught by taking two golds and two bronze. The turnabout was so impressive it inspired sports writers to refer to Norway as the new East Germany and to speculate about how it was possible. Could it be culture? Climate? Genetics? Numerous theories were offered but none seemed satisfactory.
The real secret to Norway’s success lies in a bold new philosophy on elite sport training and administration known as Olympiatoppen, “the Olympic summit.” The various aspects of the Olympiatoppen project add up to a holistic approach designed to develop the whole human being and empower the athlete.
Power to the Athlete
The Norwegian sport philosophy is grounded in a fundamental assumption that the human being is made up of three equal parts: the physiological, the psychological and the social. Each part must be developed fully for athletes to reach their full potential.
The Norwegians believe the psychological component should be taught first. “It’s good to believe that the creator of the human being meant that the psychological and mental part of the human body should be ahead of, should be leading the human being,” said Thor Rimjorde, a Norwegian educator, coach and key architect of Olympiatoppen.
The first psychological aspect the Norwegians emphasize is responsibility. Instead of simply following the suggestions of others, the athletes are encouraged to take charge of their own training, education and other facets of life.
“Independence should be promoted” Rimjorde said. “The athletes are going to be the leaders of their lives. They must never forget that. They must not give that responsibility to anyone else. And the earlier they learn this, the higher the level they will be able to reach.” The basis for this approach is the concept of the 24 hour athlete.
Only one individual, the Norwegians reason, is with the athlete 24 hours every day, the athlete himself. Who else is in a better position to influence all aspects of that athlete’s life from schooling to training to social activities?
Of course, responsibility comes with maturity. At early ages, the coach has most or all of the responsibility for an athlete’s training, but as that athlete ages and develops the coach relinquishes more and more control. Ideally, the end result is an adult athlete who is essentially his or her own trainer and has the attributes necessary to excel is sport and life.
Prior to the implementation of Olympiatoppen in January 1985, the Norwegian sport community was focused on quantity thinking. Coaches and sports organizations wanted more money and more training time. These are the necessary components, many said, for making athletes competitive. Some like Rimjorde disagreed, pointing out that there is only so much money and so many hours in a day.
“There will always be limits to quantity thinking” Rimjorde said. “There are no boundaries to quality thinking and quality work. Instead of training more, you should train better. Nobody can do a thing that they couldn’t do better if they take the challenge-that’s a very important thing to tell yourself.”
Quality thinking is another driving force behind Olympiatoppen’s success. Included in quality thinking was an examination of how coaches were educated to increase their awareness of athletes’ psychological, social and physiological needs. Today in Norway, coaches’ education means a one- year course including 160 to 200 hours in the classroom, a weighty amount of homework and the completion of a special project. Since the program began, 120 diplomas have been awarded.
For the athlete, quality thinking means thinking clearly about all aspects of training and life, and how they interrelate. Athletes are encouraged to make decisions for themselves, evaluate their own performances and set their own goals; athletes are encouraged to set and achieve goals daily and for each practice session.
On the administrative side, Olympiatoppen employs a tough love policy regarding funding. Arne Myhrvold, another Olympiatoppen founder and president of the Norwegian Olympic Committee, pioneered the principal of “results before support.” Sports, for example are required to submit a strategic plan for increasing their athletes competitiveness. This plan must be approved before the sport receives funding. In addition, athletes are given performance-based stipends and bonuses based for being ranked among the top in their sport and for high performance in international competition.
Since the start of Olympiatoppen, significant social change has occurred in Norway. In a country influenced by socialism and the idea that no individual is superior to another, elite athletes were once discouraged from striving for excellence. Now they are embraced a national heroes.
During the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, the most popular nightly TV show in Norway was Window on Lillehammer where elite Norwegian athletes, usually a gold medalist winner from that days competition were interviewed, serenaded by Norwegian top 40 music stars and given gifts form the host.
The current generation of Norwegian children watch as elite athletes are honored, and their own dreams of athletic stardom are being encouraged for the first time. With improved coaching and an emerging love for elite sports, it seems clear that Norway may be the new medal machine that some sports writers predict, especially if Olympiatoppen spreads. Rimjorde, for one thinks it will. “This is the coaching of the future,” he said, “and I’m known to look very much into the future.