Skieologians: How America won all that gold (in 2030)

Skieologians: How America won all that gold (in 2030)

A call back to their plundering of the 2018 Olympics, three “architects of Norway’s sport system” shared key ideas for nationwide sport development in an Aspen Institute article titled, “How Norway won all that gold (again).”

The Beijing Games saw Norwegian winter athletes win a record 16 gold medals. As Aspen Institute editor Tom Farrey notes, “The performance burnished Norway’s reputation as having the best sport system in the world.” 

The authors listed seven important elements to their system, one of which brought me back to my Adams State exercise physiology graduate thesis proposal course:

“Norwegian sports facilitate learning across sports. We have joint research and development projects, and arenas, where athletes and coaches meet across disciplines. This form of competence sharing has systematically been valuable. Few countries, if any, match Norway in this area.”

My fall of 2018 class was filled with about a dozen other exercise science graduate students, many of whom were current or former Grizzly runners. We had an 800-meter All-American whose indoor 1:50 5th-place accolade — far loftier than anything I could have dreamed of — would no doubt render him totally anonymous in the running mecca’s school history books. There was a 24-year-old who had “only” run 14:34 for 5k in college but was pursuing the 2:18 Olympic marathon trials standard post-collegiately, something he’s continuing to strive for today as a member of the “Alamosa Track Club Project,” a team comprised of numerous ASU alums whose fire for growth in the sport is far from flaming out. 

Like most of our class, these individuals’ master’s theses focused on the sport they’d grown to love through years of involvement. These people weren’t signing mega contracts or going to the Olympics, but they were joining forces with thousands of other high-level runners in DIII, DII, and even DI, who hoped to leave a personal mark on the sport. 

As they searched for gaps in the running literature, thousands of recently published studies — dozens of which were in the humble Alamosa college’s computer lab from previous students — would be readily available. Meanwhile, my bold plan of conducting a Nordic ski study seemed … impossible. Finding an American student from any of the last four decades who had trailblazed this topic for me felt like walking into the woods to locate a timberwolf. Sure, they must be out there, but there’s probably a reason to leave them alone. 

Thankfully, I could turn to Norway’s research, where I came across one name more than any other. Oyvind Sandbakk, the director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, was deservedly labeled as one of the three “architects” by Farrey. Sandbakk is as busy as his titles betray, but generously aided this humble American in his research, of which he will be a co-author. A former high-level athlete himself, he and his co-writers bring up a valid reason for Norwegian winter sports success in the quote pasted above: R and D. 

At NTNU, Sandbaak shepherds half-a-dozen students (many of whom were great skiers) through a PhD program every year, and much of the Nordic ski-specific research conducted involves world-class or national team members serving as willing subjects. 

It’s a far cry from America, where the number of graduate papers is about four per decade, and subjects range from teenage athletes to reluctant NCAA “B” teamers.

If you think the solution to this problem is to simply throw money at U.S. Ski and Snowboard to hire high-level sports scientists, you aren’t thinking foundationally. Of course, the reason you read this column is so that we can do that for you.

Not only is there no money to be thrown around — there is no one to throw it at. We have to go back to my ASU classroom to find the reason.

Most sport researchers and coaches were once student-athletes.

They fell in love with their craft, participated through college, and desired so strongly to stay involved they dedicated their degree to sport, continued competing and training beyond graduation, or went into coaching. More than likely they did all three, like my colleagues at Adams State. This pattern rings true for American track and field, where we are the globe’s best, but it is far from true for skiing.

The result of having 53,000 NCAA track and field athletes across DI, DII, and DIII – compared with 386 male and 374 female NCAA skiers — means infrastructure to support research and development exists in one sport and not in the other. 

The success of the United States track and field program is built upon the wide-talent pool it pulls from, and that talent pool depends on thousands of exuberant coaches, parents, and volunteers. If the NCAA system continues to shrink, as the study linked above clearly indictates (there are almost half as many NCAA skiers now then there were in 1995-1996), so will the pool we pull those leaders from. This is basically point no. 2, by the way, from Sandbakk’s article, which states:

“At the same time, we recognize that Olympiatoppen sits on the shoulders of a sports movement dominated by volunteer coaches and administrators across the country. The cooperation between community clubs and leaders driving elite sports is the jewel of the Norwegian performance culture.”

High school and college teams are the American version of Norway’s vibrant club team template, where athletes from Rena to Oslo and Trondheim to Lillehammer can receive teaching, training, racing, and more for as long as they’d like.

Afforded an opportunity to continue their sport in college, people are empowered to positively chisel their own signatures into the pipeline’s foundations. The epiphany here is that U.S. skiing only catches up to Norway in terms of research by growing the opportunities for athletes beyond the prep level.

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, etc., have robust high school leagues with thousands of athletes … just like in running. The latter group can go on and pair their academia with their sport, a combination which also would contribute to a development of the whole person — point no. 3 from Norway:

To be the best in the world, you must train the best in the world. At the same time, the training philosophy in Norwegian sports involves taking responsibility for both the social, mental and physical development into being a top athlete. It’s about developing people!

Sadly, most skiers give up the sport after their last state meet, unless of course they remembered to combine their free and open scholastic invitation to the skinny ski lifestyle with an elite, costly club experience (which hopefully garnered at least a few Junior National podiums .. without putting mom and dad into too much debt).

They give up the sport altogether, that is until their sorority’s ten-year reunion schedules a wave 8 pub crawl of the Birkie amidst a sea of disoriented Wisconsinites hoping to avoid a crash on some random hill outside of Telemark. You know what the Norwegians say: When the Beats pill guy blasts Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Let it roll, down the highway,” for the 17th time, that’s when you know you’ve really found true Idraet.  

All jokes aside, fewer college athletes means fewer people going on to study the sport, fewer coaches to inspire the next generation, and fewer people showing up at the citizen race starting lines, the group which lives out a lifelong love of the sport more than perhaps anyone else.

More college athletes means just the opposite.

At some point, it might even mean we get to write the article: “How the U.S. won all that gold (….just like Norway).”  

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