The Rich White People’s Olympics are finally slithering to an end in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, and, so far, the richest, whitest country in the world is winning. This would seem to be the logical order of things, but the country is Norway, home to just 5 million people and not otherwise known for glorious sporting achievement.
At 29 medals — including 11 golds — Norway basically owns the “Vinter-OL,” as it’s known to Norwegians. Two Norwegians — Marit Bjørgen and Ole Einar Bjørndalen — have won a record 13 Winter Olympic medals each. Germany — with an exponentially larger population of 80 million — lags far behind in second place.
Aside from a slight translation mishap (a Google Translate mistake saw the Norwegian Olympic team chefs mistakenly order 15,000 eggs instead of 1,500 from their Korean hosts), it seems the Norwegians can do no wrong. They are the undisputed champions at falling down hills on pieces of repurposed bathroom suite.
But even by Norwegian standards, 2018 is turning out to be an exceptional year.
In some ways, the events unfolding in Pyeongchang are just another Monday morning for the Norwegians.
Norway doesn’t often claim the global limelight in this manner. But every day during the Olympics, the front page of national daily Aftenposten has featured blond people dressed like tubes of toothpaste trying modestly to ignore the massive, blinging medals dangling round their necks.
In Scandinavia, it just doesn’t do to celebrate one’s achievements. True to form, an opinion column in Aftenposten warned Norwegians not to get too excited about their country’s success and openly pondered the imminent decline of the nation’s winter athletes. “Once again the Swedes will laugh at us,” was its Eeyore-ish prediction for the next Winter Olympics in Beijing.
What’s the secret of Norway’s success? Cynics might point out that the Norwegians don’t work very much and have the largest sovereign wealth fund on the planet. What else do they have to do with their time other than practice going around in circles on ice and occasionally stopping to shoot stuff while skiing?
Over the last decade or so, the various Norwegian winter sports federations have sensibly and ruthlessly targeted the disciplines in which they felt they had the best chances (basically everything apart from ice hockey and curling) and invested heavily in supporting the most promising athletes on skis and skates.
But the truth is few nations have such a close connection to their landscape as the Norwegians. While the rest of us might reminisce about gigs enjoyed and box sets binged, for Norwegians arriving at work on a Monday morning it is a matter of pride to tell colleagues how many mountains they conquered or fjords they kayaked.
These people are born wearing salopettes. They know what a “skiathlon” is — some have even taken part in one. In some ways, the events unfolding in Pyeongchang are just another Monday morning for the Norwegians.
Danes tend to restrict their outdoor exercise to fighting their way to work on Copenhagen’s death-race cycle lanes, or popping down the corner shop for a six pack of Tuborg.
I happened to be in Oslo the last time Norway attained this kind of collective ecstasy: May 17, 2009. It was Norway’s national day, and they had won the Eurovision song contest the night before. A double whammy. The winning song, “Fairytale,” blared from every window, and empty champagne bottles filled the waste bins. Though the temperature will be below freezing, similar scenes will likely welcome home athletes when they return next week.
Not far behind the Norwegians, in sixth place on the medals’ table, is another one of those annoyingly healthy, outdoorsy Scandinavian countries: Sweden, which has won all its medals on skis.
Even Finland, which usually focusses all of its sporting energies on beating Sweden at ice hockey once a year, has taken home three bronzes. And none of them for their national sport: drinking liquorice vodka and threatening someone with a knife.
But we should be careful about assuming all Scandinavians are good at snow.
Denmark, where I live, is also bloody freezing most of the time, has roughly the same population as Norway, and more than a few kroner to spare (enough to build power stations with artificial ski runs on the roof, for example). But the Danes finished the first week in Pyeongchang with no medals at all.
This makes sense. Danes tend to restrict their outdoor exercise to fighting their way to work on Copenhagen’s death-race cycle lanes, or popping down the corner shop for a six pack of Tuborg. The Danes have been eyeing curling as a sport in which they might have a chance at medals, but for the most part they see the whole shebang as another opportunity to mock the Norwegians’ earnest insistence on skiing without the assistance of gravity.
Sverre Lunde Pedersen, Havard Bokko and Simen Spieler Nilsen of Norway compete during the Men’s Team Pursuit Semifinal 2 Speed Skating on day 12 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Oval on February 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea | Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
It used to be that this kind of ribbing upset the Norwegians, who aren’t especially renowned for their sense of humor, particularly when it comes to themselves. They used to dismiss the Danish attitude as “mountain envy,” but deep down, it hurt.
These days, though, the Norwegians simply don’t care. They’ve got a bank vault full of oil money and, now, almost as much gold around their necks.
The happiest people in the world are having the last laugh.
Michael Booth is the author of “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” (Vintage, 2016).