Norwegian Sports: Putting the State Back In

David Brooks takes note of Norway’s extraordinary success on a per capita basis at the Winter Olympics and attributes it to their flinty character as displayed by one amazing World War II anecdote. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Norwegian sports are the subject of substantialpublic investment:

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.

In Sports Policy, Nils Asle Bergsgard argues that “the general egalitarian cultural climate in Norwegian politics still made it difficult to develop strong high performance sport policy in Norway in the 1970s and early 1980s” and policy instead focused on a “sport for all” objective of widespread performance. But by the mid-80s, “a subsequent White Paper from the following center-right government signalled a more positive attitude to elite sport.” The decision in 1988 to award the 1994 Winter Games to Lillehammer is said to have provided “a strong impetus to high performance sport in Norway” and more recent White Papers on sports were more favorably disposed to an emphasis on elite performance.

That’s not to say that central governments can conjure up great cross-country skiers out of thin air. Obviously Norway’s winter sports prowess has solid cultural and geographical roots. But it’s a country with an extremely large state sector — taxes are some of the highest in the world on top of the massive revenue from the state-owned oil company — that puts a lot of efforts into sports policy. You can track the development of Norwegian sports policy through Ministry of Culture white papers, and they have political disputes between a left-wing “sports for all” vision and a center-right interest in elite sports.