Have Norwegians become too good at cross-country skiing?

Norway's cross-country ski squad wins a huge haul of medals at one Winter Olympics after another – but their success risks undermining the very sport that gave the country its dominance.

Norwegian fans celebrate yet another victory during the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Norwegian fans celebrate yet another victory during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

The Norwegians are expected to again top the medals table at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but in the Nordic country, fears are mounting about the potentially disastrous consequences of its utter dominance of cross-country skiing.

According to sports statisticians Gracenote, Norway is expected to take home 45 medals in Beijing, including 21 golds — almost as many as its two closest rivals together, Russia (11) and Germany (12).

That would shatter its record of 39 medals, from Pyeongchang in 2018.

While that kind of success is cause for celebration in the country that invented the words “ski” and “slalom”, some see dark clouds on the horizon.

“What is the point of watching sports on television if there’s no real competition? If there are three, four or five Norwegians who always finish on top, along with maybe a Finn or Russian in the best of cases, it’s extremely boring,” Halvor Hegtun, an editorialist at the Aftenposten daily, told AFP.

Hegtun raised the alarm about the total dominance of cross-country skiing in a March 2020 piece headlined: “Norway has to become more mediocre”.

He told AFP: “Cross-country skiing, the discipline Norwegians love the most, is in the process of being destroyed by Norway’s hegemony, ever since we’ve gone from being a charming little nation challenging big nations to becoming a crushing superpower”


Because there’s a risk other countries may get fed up and stop broadcasting races, quashing interest in the sport and draining it of money and future talent.

In 2019, Russian television stopped airing women’s cross-country races, which was seen as a sign of frustration over Therese Johaug’s almighty supremacy.

“I try 365 days a year to become a better skier, to progress”, said Johaug several months later after another slew of victories.

“And then I’m told that I’m ruining the sport, that there’s no suspense.. sometimes it’s depressing when you have to defend yourself all the time.”

Norway has long been home to legendary skiers, including Bjørn Dæhlie, Petter Northug and Marit Bjørgen who outshone the competition the same way Johaug and men’s champion Johannes Klæbo do today. 

Bjørgen, who has the most Winter Olympic medals of any athlete in history, is also “concerned” about the future of her sport.

“It’s very important that we have other countries from Central Europe and the rest of the world with us. It’s not a good thing if there’s only Norway, Sweden and Russia who are interested in the sport”, Bjørgen told Swedish agency TT last year.

Global warming is not helping either.

“The less snow there is, the harder it is to recruit”, she stressed.

READ ALSO: Norway moves mountains to bring skiing to the people

While they may not be born with skis on their feet, as a local saying goes, Norwegian kids do start skiing very early.

The country of 5.4 million people is home to no less than 1,000 cross-country skiing clubs.

The first king in modern times, Haakon VII, even ensured he was photographed on skis early in his reign to establish his legitimacy among Norwegians. 

Nowadays, Norway’s skiing omnipotence is attributed to a mix of individual talent, strong tradition, and money.

“There’s a large base of skiers and it’s undoubtedly due to the fact that we have oil, we’re a rich country”, Vegard Ulvang, a star from the 1980s and 1990s, told AFP.

“A lot of us can afford to devote ourselves full-time” to the sport, said Ulvang, who won three golds at the 1992 Winter Olympics. 

In a sign of its resources, the cross-country team has an enormous truck that serves as a mobile waxing station.

Like a Transformer, the trailer unfolds to provide a workspace of 110 square metres and features floor heating, TV screens and a small kitchen.

In fact, sharing Norway’s waxing expertise is one of the proposals put forward to help other nations close the gap.

“It’s an idea that has crossed many people’s minds, because we want the competition to take place on the ski trails and not in the (waxing) cabin”, said Ulvang, now in charge of cross-country skiing at the International Ski Federation.

“I really hope that in Beijing, we’ll have as many multi-coloured podiums as possible”.

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Five Norwegian words which help sum up May 17th

Norway's national day, May 17th, which marks the signing of the country's constitution, is a unique celebration with plenty of traditions. Here are five words that help explain the occasion.

Five Norwegian words which help sum up May 17th


Breakfast the most important meal of the day. This is no different in Norway, and on May 17th, the meal that people enjoy the most or put the hardest work into if they are hosting (but not any literal blood, sweat or tears, hopefully) is breakfast. 

May 17th normally begins with a champagne breakfast to kick start a day of festivities. The breakfast is typically held relatively early so that people can head out to join in with the celebrations, although some will do it afterwards as a kind of brunch. 

This won’t be your typical Norwegian breakfast. Instead, the canned leverpostei is likely to be parked in favour of more upmarket and luxurious sandwich toppings. 


An event that typically follows the breakfast is the childrens’ parades all over the country.

The word literally translates to ‘children’s train’ but refers to parades. Kids up and down the country will typically participate in parades, usually with their school classes. This will be through the town or city centre. 

The most famous of the childrens’ parades is the one which sees kids in Oslo make their way up Karl Johan Gate Street to wave to the royal family who watch on from the palace. 

The parades usually end with a russetog. The russetog is a procession of russ students. Russ is where final year high-school students in Norway party in the lead up to May 17th. 

This parade maybe isn’t as wholesome as the kids’ one as the students tend to look a bit worse for wear after a month of partying. 


On Norway’s national day, you’ll see plenty of locals dressed in their national costumes. 

The day is so closely associated with the bunad that the national costume could be seen as a symbol of May 17th. 

The origins of the bunad has its roots in the period of national romanticism in Norway in the 19th century. This period led to an interest in traditional folk costumes in Norway and countries such as Germany. 

Folk costumes were worn in Norway a long time before the period of national romanticism, however. For example, in Setesdal, southern Norway, there is a tradition of folk costumes that stretches back to the 14th century. 

READ MORE: What you need to know about Norway’s national costume


This means the national anthem or song, Norway’s national anthem is Ja, vi elsker dette landet (yes, we love this country). It was only adopted relatively recently, in 2019. 

While Sønner av Norge, was considered the proper national anthem up until this point, Ja, vi elsker dette landet was considered more of a de-facto national anthem and certainly the anthem of May 17th. 

It was first performed publicly on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the constitution, giving the song an incredibly close link with the country’s national day. 

If you do fancy brushing up on the lyrics, just remember it’s typically just the first and last verses that are sung. 


This one may not be overly beneficial in expanding your vocabulary, but there is no May 17th without the flags. Most apartments in Norway have a flag holder on their balcony with Constitution Day in mind. 

Not only will the majority of houses and apartment blocks have Norwegian flags on display, but most people also heading out will be carrying flags. 

The flag mania doesn’t stop there, as most breakfast tables will be adorned with flags or decorations depicting the flag. 

One rule would be to ensure that you don’t