The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How does Norway dominate the Winter Olympics? By not worrying about success.

Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen helped Norway come from behind to win the men's biathlon relay. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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ZHANGJIAKOU, China — At yet another Norway-mad Winter Olympics with Norway dominance and Norway medals and Norway flags and the Norway anthem and really cool official Norway ski caps all over the place, there came a gripping event Tuesday in which Norway trailed considerably.

Norway does trail sometimes, even as it has wrung a dynasty from a mere 5.5 million citizens, and even as it leads the medals and the gold medals here with 28 and 13. It romped through PyeongChang 2018 with a record 39 medals and finished a narrow second to host Russia at Sochi 2014 but really won considering Russia’s spectacular cheating scandal. Even with its national anthem containing the word “rugged,” plus the lyric, “Sure, we were not many, but we were enough,” and with that pulmonary superiority over others forged from a lifelong inhalation of frigid air while cross-country skiing from ages such as 2, Norway still can trail.

It trailed in fourth place and trailed the front-running Russians by 43 seconds Tuesday in the late stages of one big goose bump of a four-man biathlon relay in sunshine and 2 degrees Fahrenheit and wind and a gnarly-slow track. Eventually the guys on the anchor leg did their skiing and shooting, skiing and shooting, with the Russians way out front all the way, until something happened that wreaked gasps. Russian anchor Eduard Latypov arrived at the final shooting ahead of everyone and began missing.

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The panic started to feel palpable, and the whole thing started to feel like one of those nightmares where you go to the final exam but can’t find the right classroom, or when you hit a baseball to the warning track but keep tripping up the baseline and get thrown out at first. He missed and missed as the Frenchman, German and Norwegian who had scrapped for second place soon skied up from behind and arrived and began shooting alongside him.

And soon that Norwegian, Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen, in his first Olympics at 29, up and exited the shooting area to resume skiing after operating from some ideal athletic trance and making five clean shots, which none of his rivals could muster.

“My feeling,” Christiansen would say, “was we were three teams fighting for this second, third and fourth place, and that’s what we didn’t want, fourth place, so it was a big, big pressure to catch this medal, I think. But when we entered the last shooting, I think we all saw, at least I saw, that Latypov, he missed four of the first five shots. It was a change in mind-set. I went from a little bit defensive to completely in mode for a gold medal. There was this possibility that we were given. It was an extra bonus for us. We could fight for a gold medal we didn’t think we had the chance to fight for. So I just felt, I don’t remember — I was so calm. I was completely in my own world. I think it was a little bit blackout there. But it must have been really exciting to watch the relay, at least we hope.”

So Christiansen skied alone out in front coolly around the closing turns as Norwegians often do, and then he skied across the line well in first as Norwegians often do, and then right on into the festive hugs of his stunned teammates. Latypov would ski through for bronze behind France at silver and would topple to the ground into the subdued consolation of his stunned teammates.

Norway had still another medal to make it 10 in biathlon and six in cross-country skiing and three in Nordic combined and Alpine skiing, two in speedskating and one each in ski jump, snowboarding, freestyle skiing and curling. It had still more to add to the four medals of biathlete Marte Olsbu Roeiseland and of cross-country skier Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo and the Boe brothers of biathlon who ended up on the same podium in one event, or the fresh surprises such as 21-year-old Birk Ruud (gold) in the men’s freestyle skiing big air or an astonished 25-year-old Mons Roisland (silver) in the men’s snowboard big air.

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Then it came time to ask again about just how a small country reigns so, how it outpaces countries with much larger contingents and countries with much similar climates. There’s the Norwegian thing about not keeping score of the games of small children, and the thing about a system that emphasizes the overall health of the human athlete, and the thing about not paying medal winners because it might beget suboptimal motives, and the thing about not running around the world crowing.

There’s Ruud after his freestyle gold early in these Games, speaking of his father who died last April: “It’s hard to say what he would have said, but I believe he’s really proud that I skied, that I did this for the right reasons, not really for the result but more for the sport, the love of the sport. I didn’t start skiing to end up with this [medal], but I started skiing because that’s what I love and that’s what he wanted me to do, so I think he would be really proud.”

There’s Roisland, who was “blown away” by his result Tuesday: “It’s hard to explain Norway’s success. We’re not many people, but we’re a people with passion. [There are] so many athletes out of Norway, and it’s so impressive and inspiring to see what everyone does to be here and be part of the crew.”

The biathletes fielded the question, too, and first-leg dude Sturla Holm Laegreid said, “I mean, we have a lot of cold,” proving there’s a wise guy in every room and a wise guy welcome in every room.

Then Christiansen spoke of the fantastic paradox: the successful system that doesn’t prioritize success.

“Our system is not set up for success,” he said. “It’s more a system for joy and happiness, to have joy with your sport and first of all be healthy. And maybe that’s why we are so successful, because we really enjoy what we’re doing and it’s then easy to work hard — not every day but almost every day.”

There’s biathlete Johannes Thingnes Boe, who informed officials he had committed a rule breach and thus disqualified himself at a World Cup event in 2019 in Utah and who sometimes gets second-guessed for not training enough. “This is a bit hypothetical,” he winked to TV2 in Norway in 2020, “but how good could I have been if I had done the job properly?” He strives to avoid overtraining. He has four medals here.

They all treat their medals-per-capita titan of a country to this curious quadrennial tail-kicking of the world, and they perform their 5-for-5 shots in the clutch and whatnot even amid the heightened expectations of any public that gets accustomed to winning.

“I think they are satisfied,” Klaebo said of the Norwegians. “Norway, we have this culture of a lot of people watching the Olympic Games, which I think it’s in many countries, especially the cross-country skiing, there is a lot of pressure about it. And for our athletes it has been challenging sometimes but, yeah, I think we have managed to do it right, and I hope they are satisfied back home.”

Anyone unsatisfied with watching Tuesday, you’d have to consider a bit huffy.

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