Last week, I discussed a few negative aspects related to highly competitive elite sports, with special reference to the just ended 2018 Winter Olympic Games. I pointed out that sometimes, the margins between the top players are so small that it becomes meaningless to say that one is better than the other, for example, if the differences are just fractions or, hundreds of fractions, of a second. Technology makes it possible to measure differences which only machines can see, not the human eye and mind. I also reflected on the fact that most of those who compete are more or less equally good in the sports in question; say they are among the ten best in the world, such as in tennis or golf. The one who wins does it more because of luck and accident, not because of being better at all. I didn’t even touch upon issues of performance-enhancing drugs and sportsmen and women damaging their health, physically and mentally, in very you age. I also didn’t mention the harm inflicted on children who are taken into rigorous sports training from a very young age, because they have shown talent and may become winners.

Now when the Olympics are over for this time, it is a good time for us all to reflect on some of the negative (and positive) aspects of elite sports. Adding to what I discussed last week, I shall take up a few more issues this week – yet, without being categorical, just letting us reflect, so that perhaps we can guard against going further along the road we are on, and with some luck, maybe we can reclaim some of the many positive aspects related to sports, even elite sports. After all, sports are games and are meant to be fun, more entertainment and pass-time rather than for receiving trophies. If advertising and moneymaking had been left out, maybe we could have become a bit more sober. But that isn’t going to happen, and TV is indeed going to be at all the top sports events – and at music and film galas, at pop concerts, and other cultural events. Many of them are also unhealthily competitive. And so has our educational system becomes, indeed the private schools.

On the other hand, being a Norwegian, I am indeed proud of Norway having won more medals than any other country in this year’s Winter Olympics, 39 in total. I shouldn’t say that, perhaps, since I am against many aspects of elite sports among more or less equally good players. Yet, I was impressed by some of the young sportsmen and women, indeed by the women who are now doing so well. They have been fighting hard in sports, where men used to keep the attention of the media, spectators, and advertisers.

The Norwegian skiing-legend Marit Bjørgen (37) spoke after her fifth and final gold medal in PyoengChang in South Korea. She said she was in tears in spite of yet another gold medal because she suddenly realised how much she was missing her toddler son Marius; it had been a sacrifice for her and her child to be an elite sportswoman; she was so aware of having had to be away from him too much in order to train and take part in competitions. Men rarely mention their children, either they are top in sportsmen or CEOs. Marit Bjørgen is ranked the first all-time in the Cross-Country World Cup ranking. But it did have a price; she didn’t only receive prizes and laurels.

It must be remembered that in sports and other top-level careers – in music, theatre and elsewhere in entertainment and culture, and in the private sector, government, politics, research, and so on – much is sacrificed to win and be among the very best. Yes, also the rest of us, at lower levels, have to use our elbows to do what we want to achieve, often against many odds. It is a fact that many women have had to be more competitive in recent years and decades, not fulfilling the old image of women of being kind and friendly. To win, it is necessary to be rough – because others are rough. As a Norwegian former Prime Minister said when ‘it was time for him to go’; “often, there is a cold wind that blows at the top”.

After the Norwegian success in the Winter Olympic Games, all the leaders of the games have begun asking what it was that made Norway so successful; it is a little land with just over five million people, but they outclassed many big countries. True, there is winter for a third of the year in Norway, so they should do well in winter sports. But then nowadays, much training takes place in indoor facilities. This year, about half of the world’s countries (101) took part in the Winter Olympics.

Newspapers have drawn some conclusions concerning Norway’s success. A reporter in ‘USA Today’ newspaper, for example, questions the value of the American performance-focused child sports. “Contrary to the American culture, where everything must be measured and ranked, the Norwegian sports clubs are not allowed to measure performance until children are 13 years of age.”

‘The Ringen’ publication suggests that: “We Americans would probably have done much better if we had been more relaxed, allowed our children to have more fun in sports and bothered less about whether we won or lost.”

It is interesting to know that in Norway, over 90 percent of all children (and adults) have been or are members of a sports clubs. A Norwegian sports leader says that there is a close linkage between mass sports and elite sports. The Norwegians emphasize mass sports. The sports leader admits that at least since the 1990s, many Norwegian sports enthusiasts and leaders have questioned the model where elite sports have not been given more attention – and money. However, the down to earth ‘Norwegian sports model’ seems to have done well; its forte is simply that it is based on thinking that sports should, first of all, be fun; it is about friendship, fairness, family, neighbourhood, community, and so on. The often invisible values that are encouraged go against children focusing on winning, yes, stepping on others and being smart to reach individual goals, and becoming stars. One sports leader said in a recent article that they don’t want such children in their clubs; they want the considerate children, and they want all to be friends, even when they compete.

Is it all so idyllic? No, of course, not, and we should also remember that it is in us human beings, at varying degrees, that we like to win and do well. Hence, I shouldn’t disqualify such attitudes either, because they are not necessarily wrong. It is important that we always try to do our best, but we don’t, therefore, need to show off and be better than our best friends. If we can excel, that may also be good as long as we keep it all at a balanced level.

When the skiing superstar Johannes Høstflot Klæbo (21) came back to Trondheim, Norway, with his three gold medals, he was praised and celebrated by all. In typical Norwegian style his trainer, his grandfather Kåre Høsflot (75), made a little list of areas in which Johannes should improve his performance. He seemed to say: “Be proud of what you have achieved. But don’t get proud. You are still just my grandson and one of the kids in the neighbourhood.” This is very Norwegian thinking, telling everyone to stay down to earth. Is it good? Not only good, but that is in the culture of the Norwegians.

Johannes has a younger brother, Ola (17), who is doing better in certain areas than his elder brother did at the same age, the elder brother has said. Maybe Johannes will coach him, with grandpa, and then before his skiing career is over? Johannes wishes to complete his BA in economics from NTNU, Trondheim, but it is likely to take longer than it should, he has said. Yes, it has a price to win prizes. That we must always remember.


n            The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.