Editorial: The Norway Way of Modesty, Collegiality and ‘Friluftsliv’

  • Marit Bjoergen, of Norway, celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 30k cross-country skiing competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

When President Trump unleashed his infamous denigration of Haiti and African countries during a discussion of immigration policy in January, he expressed a decided preference for allowing into the United States newcomers from places like Norway. Critics, present company included, interpreted this as an expression of racial bigotry, given that Norway is overwhelmingly white. But in light of the outcome of the recent Winter Olympics, perhaps there is a more innocent interpretation: All Trump had in mind was an immigration policy that would boost American chances to win more gold medals.

Norway, a nation of 5 million people, won a total of 39 medals at the Winter Games, 14 of them gold. The total includes 14 in cross-country skiing, seven in Alpine skiing, six in biathlon, five in ski jumping and four in speedskating. The New York Times hailed this feat as the greatest performance ever at the Winter Games, while noting at the same time that the reaction in Norway itself has been muted. No parade was planned for returning athletes, and any spontaneous public celebrations have been far more subdued than those often seen elsewhere around the world. That’s because, according to Fredrik Aukland, a TV sports commentator in Norway, “modesty is a big part of the culture here. And Norwegians don’t go out much.” Norway, one of the world’s richest countries, apparently discourages ostentation in all its manifestations, especially when it comes to wealth.

The Times further notes that Norway’s Olympic success is laid on a solid foundation of physical fitness — Norwegians of all ages have been described as fitness fanatics — and an outdoors lifestyle called friluftsliv, which is translated as “open-air living.” This passionate attachment to and deep appreciation for the natural world is said to be as much spiritual as physical.

So what do Norwegians worry about amid all this health and wealth? Well, they worry that their utter domination of cross-country skiing will effectively destroy their national sport (and pastime), as other, more populous countries lose interest. The Norwegian solution to this conundrum is to invite athletes the world over to a week-long training camp, all expenses paid except travel. “We show them what works for us,” Erik Roste, president of the Norwegian Ski Federation, told the Times. “We don’t have the blueprint, but we feel a responsibility to the international community, and we want to be open. We want to share our knowledge.”

In light of all this, we have to wonder just how well Norwegians would assimilate into American culture if they were granted immigration preference. In many respects, it strikes us that Norwegians are positively un-American. And by that we mean unlike Americans, in a positive sense. Whatever America’s national characteristics are, no one would suggest that prominent among them are modesty to a fault, undying devotion to physical fitness, total immersion in the outdoors, cultural opposition to ostentatious displays of wealth, and an impulse to collegiality. Come to think of it, Norwegians don’t really sound like Trump’s kind of people either.