EUGENE, Ore. — The final two events on the track Tuesday night at the World Athletics Championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field were the men’s 1,500 meters and men’s 400 hurdles.
That Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Karsten Warholm, both defending Olympic champions and ranked No. 1 in the world, didn’t win amounted to two of the biggest upsets of the 10-day meet. Ingebrigtsen was second in the 1,500, and Warholm led through eight of the 10 hurdles before fading to seventh with a bum hamstring.
Still, Ingebrigtsen and Warholm are two of the world’s greatest track stars. One of the world’s top young soccer players? Erling Haaland. The No. 5 men’s tennis player? Casper Ruud. The No. 9 golfer? Viktor Hovland.
The reigning Olympic triathlon gold medalist and Ironman world-record holder? Kristian Blummenfelt. The reigning Olympic champion beach volleyball team? Anders Mol and Christian Sorum.
Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway, Norway.
Population: 5.4 million, the equivalent of San Diego and San Bernardino counties combined. Coincidence? Luck? Fluke? A once-in-a-century vein of athletic talent?
Maybe not. You know Norway as the winter sports juggernaut, topping the medal table by a comfortable margin at the last two Olympics and three if you subtract the doped-to-the-gills Russians in 2014. Makes sense. They have a lot of snow and ice. Cross-country skiing developed not as a means for physical fitness but a means to catch dinner.
But their prowess in outdoor, warm-weather sports indicates something else must be going on, and it is. Norway does youth sports unlike everyone else. Or put it this way: Whatever the United States does, Norway does the opposite.
“I like the Norwegian sports model,” Warholm, who didn’t focus on the hurdles until age 20, said after shattering the world record at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. “I think a lot of people can learn from it. I never felt any pressure. My parents never pushed me, but that also created something inside me that I had my own drive, I had my own flame.”
Youth sports in the United States: Your kid tries out for an under-8 soccer team, you fork out $2,000 per year in club dues plus another couple thousand in tournament and travel costs, you don’t play other sports for fear your kid will fall behind, you religiously attend every game and scream from the sidelines, you question the coach’s tactics and substitutions, you lecture your kid in the car on the way home, you proudly post Facebook pictures of your kid with medals, you start talking about college scholarships and the national team.
Youth sports in Norway: Your kid tries multiple sports at the local club whether or not they’re any good at them, you pay a nominal fee but only if you can afford it because it’s subsidized by the national lottery, coaches are volunteers, there are no scores or standings or regional competitions until age 11 and sometimes older, children are encouraged to pick their sports and decide amongst themselves what they want to do in practice (“Scrimmage!”), most kids don’t specialize until late in high school.
Youth sports in the U.S.: driven by egos and money. Youth sports in Norway: driven by fun.
“You don’t compete when you’re really young, it’s only for fun,” says Elisabeth Slettum, a Norwegian sprinter at the World Championships who tried handball, gymnastics and several other sports before settling on track at 16. “I liked that, very much. We want to try a lot of sports when we’re young until we are maybe 16 or 17, and then we go for the one we like the most.”
Norway introduced Children’s Rights in Sports in 1987 and updated it in 2007. It is eight pages long and begins: “Children are engaged in sports because they enjoy it. … This is the foundation that all coaches, managers and parents must safeguard and develop further.”
It grants children the right “to learn many different skills and be granted opportunities for variation.” The right “to state their viewpoints and be heard.” The right “to participate in planning and execution of their own sports activities.” The right “to choose which sport or how many sports they would like to participate in — and decide for themselves how much they would like to train.”
It adds: “An example of a violation of these rights is if a child is pressured by the parents to participate in competitions against its will.”
In a way, it’s financially driven as well. Norway has nationalized health care, so keeping kids engaged physically — a reported 93 percent play youth sports — can save money on the back end if they stay fit into their 60s and 70s. Studies have shown that, on average, their American counterparts play organized youth sports for less than three years and “retire” at age 11, which helps explain our epidemic of obesity and other weight-related complications that drain health care resources.
At 11 in Norway, they’re just starting to keep score. There’s another benefit: You produce healthier, hungrier, happier athletes once they do specialize.
Take the 6-foot-5, 21-year-old Haaland, who recently transferred to Manchester City in the Premier League for a reported $102 million (not counting his $24 million annual salary). He was born in England while his father played in the Prem, but he wasn’t developed there.
His father moved the family back to Norway when Erling was 3, back to a town of 12,000 on the southwest coast, back to the Norwegian sports system. Erling participated in handball, golf, tennis, track, cross-country skiing and who knows what else until focusing on soccer at 14, just as he had a 10-inch growth spurt.
“Versatility is important,” Alf-Inge Haaland, his father, once said. “You get to develop completely different sides of the body, and that can be a positive no matter what you do.”
Research has confirmed as much. A comprehensive 2013 study. found pre-pubescent specialization does not increase chances of becoming elite but does carry higher rates of injury, mental stress and burnout. It concluded that “for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success.”
The $19 billion — b, not m — youth sports industry in the United States doesn’t want you to read that. Fields need to be rented. Coaches and referees need to be paid. Hotels need to be filled. Facebook pictures need to be posted. Egos need to be boosted.
Fun? It’s fun for the parents and the club director driving a Range Rover.
When Slettum, the Norwegian sprinter who trains with Warholm, was given a brief overview of American youth sports and told kids regularly play competitive, high-octane tournaments that involve travel and screaming parents as young as 8, she looked back quizzically and answered with a question.