Compare and Contrast: Canada and Norway’s Approaches to Sport

Mar 17, 2022

Categories: Blog

Blog by Guest Contributor Dale Henwood, Former President and CEO of the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary

In recent years, and especially as the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games come around, attention often turns to the dominant performance of Norway. This small nation has become a superpower in winter sports. The country once again topped the medal table of the Beijing Olympic Games. What are they doing differently from other countries to get consistent and repeated performance?

There are some similarities between Canada and Norway and many striking differences. As a nation, we often say that Canadians are “born with skates on” while they are “born with skis on in Norway.”

Norway has developed a strong base in their sport system by supporting talented athletes as they progress up the performance pathway. First and foremost, fun, enjoyment, personal development, and friendship are fundamental at the local sport club level. There is no great emphasis on the competitive side at an early age. They take a very “humanistic” approach to sport and cherish a love of activity. Sport is instilled in the young participants, and sport is used as a vehicle to develop people.

Norway also provides easy access to sport facilities for families. A national youth sport policy guides much of their activities. Multi-sport sampling is encouraged, and self-motivation is key. Scores are not kept for youth under 12, and expensive elite travel does not exist. The focus remains on enjoyment and fun as opposed to medal performances. Being active at all ages of life is part of their culture.

In Canada, we often see early specialization, adult dominance in youth sport, expensive sport academies, and expensive travel for athletes. Regrettably, we eliminate many great athletes at an early age. Adults, parents, and coaches too often extract the joy out of the experience, which leads to kids opting out of the sport. A “kids-first” approach is needed where fun, enjoyment, learning, and a growth environment are foundational. We need to realize that there is no such thing as elite U12!

Identified athletes in Norway are encouraged and supported through their development years, whereas in Canada, significant financial support is normally not provided until athletes are closer to the top of the performance pathway.

Specific to Olympic/Paralympic athletes, Norway introduced the Olympiatoppen program after an extremely poor showing at the 1988 Games in Calgary. The program is funded by lottery funds and has seen a massive increase in support in recent years. Over those years, an extraordinarily strong sport culture has developed with a bold vision and clear accountability.

Canada is not as coordinated and aligned, and regional jurisdictional issues often impact decisions and funding. Provincial and federal support to sport organizations in Canada can vary significantly year to year and from province to province but has been relatively static in the past decade.

Norwegian athletes perform very well in the Nordic sports (primarily cross-country skiing, biathlon, and ski jumping), where over 30% of the Olympic medals are awarded. Canada only offers modest support for athletes in these Nordic sports. Cross-country skiing and biathlon have strong traditions in Norway, similar to Canadas’s tradition with hockey. Sports like ski jumping, biathlon and alpine also receive great media attention in Norway.

Both countries support Olympic and Paralympic athletes in the summer and winter Games. But to be the number one in winter sports, you need to perform well in many different sports, including Nordic, mountain, sliding, and rink. Norway does this better than any other country.

In Norway’s high-performance system, there are multiple agencies/organizations that are philosophically aligned and there is one leader who is ultimately accountable. In Canada, there are many organizations with many great leaders but from a system perspective, there is no one leader who is ultimately accountable.

While Canada consistently finishes near the top of the medal standings of the Winter Olympic Games, one can’t dismiss the success of Norway and help but wonder “what if?”

Photo: Gold medalist, Therese Johaug of Norway, celebrates after winning. Credit: Reuters Photo

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