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BEIJING — When Tore Ovrebo, head of Norway’s vaunted national athlete development program known as Olympia toppen, arrived in Beijing, he predicted exactly how many medals his country would win.
“The medal aim is 32 — three, two,” Ovrebo said at a press conference, making the number crystal clear for anyone not listening closely.
That is an astonishingly high bar, sort of like a Major League Baseball manager promising his pitcher will throw a no-hitter.
Ovrebo proceeded to map out his game plan, predicting Norway would medal repeatedly in three core disciplines: alpine skiing, biathlon and cross-country skiing.
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With the Winter Olympics entering the final days of competition, his country’s athletes are actually well ahead of schedule. The U.S. with its vastly larger population lags by half a dozen medals.
Norway’s athletes are outpacing the U.S. even though its team is less than half the size, with 99 Norwegians competing in Beijing compared to 223 Americans.
So how does a nation with so few people do it? The Norwegians have been asked this a lot in Beijing.
“It’s a good question,” said Birk Ruud, a member of Norway’s freestyle ski team, who won a gold medal in the Olympic big air competition. “We’re a country with a lot of good genes and we work hard.”
He and his teammate Ferdinand Dahl told reporters that winter sport is a big part of life in their northern country. It’s something just about everyone does from the time they’re little kids.
“We have this term, that we’re born with skis on our feet,” Dahl said. “Fun is the fundamental drive. A lot of hard work, I think and a lot of fun and dedication — and skiing.”
That national sports culture has created a pipeline of skiing superstars that other countries, so far, can only aspire to match.
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Young people compete against each other, growing stronger before they ever reach the international level.
Sometimes Norwegian athletes are so dominant, so much better than the competition, other nations build strategies around the race for silver and bronze.
“Therese is queen of cross-country skiing and now I feel like I’m the little princess,” said Finnish skier Kerttu Niskanen, after finishing second to Norway’s star cross-country racer Therese Johaug.
At that press conference, Johaug herself – who had already won a pair of gold medals – confidently predicted she might reach the podium two more times.
“Today I took the second [gold medal] and its fantastic but the Olympics is not finished yet,” she said.
There are some practical things, beyond a love of winter and snow, that raise Norway’s Olympics game. Many of these sports disciplines are pretty marginal in the U.S. in terms of audience appeal.
But in Nordic countries, cross country skiing and biathlon are mainstays on television. With that popularity comes fame for Norwegian athletes, along with more sponsorships, more money.
Norway also funds its Olympic athlete development programs with a national lottery.
Billy Demong is a former U.S. Olympian in Nordic combined, a sport that pairs ski jumping with cross country skiing. He won a break-out gold medal in Vancouver 12 years ago.
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But he notes that his success wasn’t followed by a pipeline of other American athletes reaching the podium.
“Was there a group [of U.S. athletes] behind me?” Demong said. “Absolutely there was. Did they all quit essentially or retire young? Absolutely.”
Demong now heads a team called USA Nordic that develops Olympic-caliber ski jumpers and Nordic combined athletes. He says the problem isn’t a lack of talent, though he does think the the U.S. does need a broader base of grassroots winter sports programs.
He says there’s just not enough money to keep Americans in these sports at the elite level until they can mature and get really good the way Norwegians can do.
“Nobody’s making money from sponsors in these niche winter Olympic disciplines” in the U.S., Demong said. “We certainly don’t have the income to be able to pay our athletes.”
Demong said if the U.S. wants to compete for medals in a broader variety of winter sports, Congress needs to work with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and other sports programs to revamp funding programs.
“We’ve got to get more creative than this,” Demong said. He suggested expanding the U.S. military’s athlete program and considering a small tax on sports betting to support development of Olympic talent.
But that kind of transition, even if it happens, won’t produce Norway-style success for years. It takes a long time to nurture, train and polish athletes of this caliber.
Meanwhile the Norwegian Olympic machine is firing on all cylinders now, with its athletes still looking forward to many of their best events in the final weekend of the Beijing Games.
That 32-medal goal? It’s starting to look like a low-ball estimate.
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