Norway has a population of a little over four million, nearly half of whom are members of the Norwegian Sports Federation. Three out of four Norwegian children regularly take part in sporting activities.
Competitive sports attract enormous attention. Norwegian athletes have won international championship medals in a wide range of sports, including cross-country skiing, boxing, wrestling, speed-skating, curling, cycling, dancing, athletics, sledge-dog racing, handball, karate, orienteering, canoeing, rowing, sailing, shooting, weight- lifting, swimming and women's football.
It is chiefly in winter sports we have made our mark internationally. In the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, the cross-country skiers Vegard Ulvang and Bjørn Dæhlie printed their names indelibly in Norwegian sports history, bringing home three gold medals each. With a total of nine gold, six silver and five bronze medals, Norway came third in the national rankings at Albertville.
Norwegian speed-skaters, biathlon competitors and ski jumpers have a long tradition of being among the world leaders, whereas the breakthrough of our alpine skiers into the top ranks is of more recent date. Norway's curling teams are among the world's best, and ice hockey, too, is advancing, with the national squad currently in the world's top ten.
Norway has not made a similar international name for itself in summer sports, but Norwegians have won Olympic medals in a number of typical minor sports. In the Barcelona Games in 1992, Norway won gold medals in wrestling and sailing, silvers in rowing, canoeing, women's handball and shooting, and a bronze in canoeing. In terms of medals gained in proportion to populations, Norway was the fourth best nation.
In major sports, we have looked to our women for the greatest successes, including the long-distance and marathon runners Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, the national handball team, and the national football team, which won the silver medal in the first official World Championships in 1991.
It is some years since the men's national football team last qualified for one of the major championships, but it has shown itself capable of beating the best from time to time. The delight taken in sporting success can hardly be greater than when the football team beats the likes of England or Italy.
With a good 1.7 million members, the Norwegian Sports Federation is easily the country's largest voluntary organization, comprising 45 sports federations. With over 338,000 members, the Federation of Company Sports is the largest, followed by the Football Federation with 280,000. Combining cross-country, jumping, and alpine events, the Ski Association numbers 166,00 members. The Handball Federation has over 100,000, and the Athletics Federation 56,000. Despite its great traditions, the Skating Association currently only has 5,800 members.
The status and widespread distribution of sports in Norway distinguish Norway as a sporting country. Regular physical activity is engaged in by over 40 per cent of the adult population. Fifteen per cent take part in competitions, and 3 per cent are top-flight competitors. The sports movement is the country's predominant popular movement.
Over 500,000 children and young people under the age of 17 participate in organized sport, which is thus an important part of the environment in which Norwegian children grow up. Among the most popular activities are football, handball, aerobics, jazz ballet, swimming and skiing. For 28 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls, football is mentioned as the main interest. Boys also like cross-country skiing, while girls prefer handball, jazz ballet and aerobics.
Sport for children and young people also has its problems. In adolescence there is a sharp increase in the percentage who lose interest. The underlying reason for this may be competitive pressure and the need to excel.
The Sports Federation has issued guidelines for sports for children, urging versatility and variation rather than specialisation. The emphasis should be on well-being and confidence-building through games. Competitions for children under ten should be limited to their own club. The focus is on physical, mental and social development.
The main obstacle to improving sport for children is the shortage of qualified coaches and managers. The Sports Federation is giving top priority to establishing so-called sports schools for children, intended to cover and provide introductions to all kinds of sports. In 1991, sports school facilities were made available to 47,000 children.
Uniquely in Norway (and to some extent the other Nordic countries), sport is a popular movement with very widespread participation and support. The degree of government involvement is likewise unique. Norwegian sports policy is handled by the Ministry of Culture. The state annually allocates funds to the Sports Federation, and sports receive one-third of the profits of the state-run football pools and "Lotto". Of these funds, about 60 per cent are spent on developing sports facilities, and the rest goes to the Federation. There are between ten and twelve thousand sports centres in Norway, from the most modest local ground to big stadiums and indoor halls. A great deal of work on sports facilities is local and voluntary.
Central government allocations to the Sports Federation account for between 90 and 95 per cent of its revenues (some NOK 200 million in 1991). From the Federation, money is channelled to the regional organizations.
Public sports policy is based on the "sport for all" principle. Main features of official Norwegain sports policy for the 1990s include:
Financial support for organizations to enable them to maintain extensive activities and thereby make a positive contribution to their local environments and communities.
Sports organizations must provide children with opportunities for participation in varied games and sporting activities in their neighbourhoods.
A larger proportion of the population should be given greater opportunities to engage in sporting activities. This applies particularly to under-privileged social groups.
There must be equal opportunities for participants of both sexes, also with regard to reaching the highest level in their sports.
Talented young athletes should be given opportunities to combine their education with a full commitment to sport, regardless of their own financial resources and where they live.
Over 12,000 sports clubs spread all over Norway attract a volume of voluntary work which is the backbone of Norwegian sport. The men and women elected to office in all these organizations make an invaluable contribution, which no state body could or would wish to replace. In the 1990s, central government will continue to give financial and political support to maintain and encourage this spirit of voluntary service.
Top level sports activities in Norway are funded both by central government allocations and by outside sponsors and business interests. The state, the Sports Federation and the Norwegian Olympic Committee (NOK), the highest authority where all training for and participation in Olympic events are concerned, cooperate with the private sector.
Following a meagre haul of medals in the 1984 Winter Olympics, the Sports Federation and the Olympic Committee initiated a joint programme aimed at improved performances by Norway's leading athletes. Both the organizations and one main sponsor provided funds with which to supplement the efforts of the respective sports federations. The project proved successful, and has been extended in the form of the "Olympiatoppen" organization, which cooperates with the various federations in the Norwegian Sports Federation to improve conditions for top-level sport in Norway, the aim being to enable more Norwegian athletes to succeed at the international level. In particular, the work is aimed at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, to be arranged in Norway by the small town of Lillehammer. The target is even more medals than in Albertville, but also successful participation in such disciplines as bob, luge and figure-skating.
"Olympiatoppens" basic budget in 1991 amounted to some NOK 15 million. Each of the "owners", the Sports Federation and the Olympic Committee, contributed a good six million, with the rest allocated out of central government funds. That year, 191 athletes (80 women and 111 men) took part in the organization's activities.
At "Toppidrettssenteret" in Oslo, the world of Norwegian sports has its own centre for the development of top-flight sporting skills.
There used to be a natural correspondence in Norwegian sport between levels of popular participation and top levels of performance. Today, so much is required to succeed that the gap between the two has widened, and top-level sport now lives a life of its own.
Elite sport has to a large extent turned professional. Those who arrange major events can sell them to TV companies as well as making extra money, like the teams and participants, by advertising on stadiums or on costumes.
Members of Norway's sports elite make good money. The best footballers and ice hockey players are paid several hundred thousand kroner a year, and some coaches make almost a million.
Since 1976, the Norwegian Sports Federation has been very active in the fight against doping, which is also supported by annual government grants.
The author, Olav Førde, is assistant editor of Nytt fra Norge Norway Digest