Norway's three-peat in the Winter Games

Norway's Olympic success is rooted in mass participation, thus demonstrating that sport can be universally enjoyed while developing athletes with extraordinary ability.

I first started doing these analyses of multi-sport games results to reveal the true winners even though officially there isn't a winner per se. As I noted in my analysis of the Tokyo Olympic Games, no country actually wins the Olympics but the country that takes home the most gold medals is traditionally considered the overall winner. But if you're involved in sport at all you already know that counting first place finishes alone is misleading when it comes to determining which teams or countries did better than others, so the point of these analyses is to assign points to each medal and produce a score for each country.

Almost 3000 athletes from 90 countries participated in the 2022 edition of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. Fifteen sport disciplines were contested in 109 events. That's seven more events than were contested in PyeongChang in 2018. Thirty countries won medals and 23 of them took home at least one gold. Table 1 shows the ranking of countries by the traditional gold medal count:

In a three-peat beginning at Sochi in 2014, Norway is at the top of the heap once again in the gold medal tally. They are followed by Germany, China, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands in the top five finishers.

In Table 2 the 5-3-1 point system for gold, silver, and bronze medals is used to calculate a country's rank by points. Norway and Germany remain in the two top positions but Russia moves up from 9th place in the gold-only medal standings to 3rd place when all medals are scored. The United States and Sweden hold their places among the top five and are joined by Austria. The Netherlands falls to 7th place.

When I first started to do these analyses I hoped to show that 'scoring' the competition would prove that counting gold medals alone wasn't the best way to gauge success. However, after recalculating the standings from various multi-sport events with a point system I've found that assigning point values to medals makes only small changes to the standings, and in some cases no changes at all. Gold medal tallies reveal the best athletes at the very top of the performance heap, but looking at gold medals exclusively shows only part of the picture, so even though the standings may not change much the point system allows a deeper appreciation of overall performance by a nation's athletes.

Russia and Canada provide good examples of this. Russia won only eight golds but collected 12 silver and 14 bronze medals. Canada won 4 golds, 8 silver, and 14 bronze medals. As noted above, Russia moved up six notches to third place from their ninth place gold-only position when medals were scored. Canada shifted two positions -- from 11th to 9th -- for the same reason.

In the points per athlete (PPA) analysis the Netherlands take the top spot with 1.44 PPA slightly outpacing Norway's 1.41. PPA is calculated by dividing the number of points a country scored by the number of athletes the country entered in the competition. These numbers are listed in Table 3.

The PPA metric seems to favor smaller teams although there is no significant correlation between team size and PPA, r(28) = -0.04, p = 0.42. There is a moderate positive correlation between per capita income and total points scored, r(28) = .53, p = .002, and a moderate positive correlation between per capita income and PPA, r(28) = .51, p = .002. This indicates that countries with higher per capita incomes score more points in the Olympic Games. Easy speculation says that higher incomes mean more leisure time for sport activities. Other correlations -- GDP, population, median age -- are weak. These relationships are shown in Table 4.

There are strong correlations between stats internal to the Games themselves, team size and points scored, for example, r(28) = .68, p < .05, but nothing that links sport performance to other factors.


Why is Norway able to perform so well? It's easy to assume that Norway's success is based on geography and weather. But other countries that enjoy the same kind of climate did not do as well in Beijing. Norway easily outpaced other Scandinavian teams, doubling Sweden's score and beating Finland five times over. So it's not just climate.

Tom Farrey, writing in the New York Times after the PyeongChang Winter Games, was curious about Norway's system that consistently produced high performance from such a small base. Traditional thinking is that countries with large populations have more successful sport programs, but Norway's population is less than 6 million and they have outperformed everyone else since the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Farrey notes that part of Norway's success is their emphasis, which all 54 national governing bodies have agreed to, on letting kids be kids and postponing serious sport involvement until athletes are teenagers in most sports. They do this to retain youngsters in sports (any sport) until they have determined their own interests and become invested in their own participation.

“We believe the motivation of children in sport is much more important than that of the parent or coach,” said Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation. “We’re a small country and can’t afford to lose them because sport is not fun.”

This thinking is not new, it is central to many sport development models. The difference is that Norway has found a way to integrate the concepts involved into policies and practices necessary to achieve two important goals: creating a way for 93% of its children to grow up playing organized sport, and, as a consequence of this mass participation, develop high performance athletes across a number of culturally important activities. Norway not only understands the connection between mass participation and elite performance, they have developed a system within their own Norwegian way of life that makes this connection work.

This connection is not a secret, national governing bodies in other countries are well aware of it; they simply haven't been able or willing to seriously consider ways to make the youth sport level more welcoming to youngsters, affordable to families, or effective in developing elite performers and a healthier society overall. Of course, no national sport strategy can be uprooted and planted elsewhere; Norway's strategy works for them. But regardless of location the goals are the same, it's just the how that's different. Creating top level training programs is easy but unless there is a development system to back it up the results will be disappointing.

Norway's Olympic success is rooted in mass participation, thus demonstrating that sport can be universally enjoyed while developing athletes with extraordinary ability.