nationality, sport, and ja, vi elsker dette landet
which nation of 4.6 million is the all-time leader in winter olympics medals? (hint: it also leads the world in human development, press freedom, and uggens). that's right, i'm talking about iraq!
well, actually, i'm talking about norway. entering the 2006 games this week, norway had 260 medals, far outpacing the former soviet union at 194 and the u.s. at 190. at last glance, my kinswomen and kinsmen led the 2006 medal count as well.
though my cousins may disagree as we pitch horseshoes this summer, norwegians are not superior athletes. norway ranks 28th in the all-time summer games medal count, one place above the "unified team," which was only assembled for the boycott olympiad of 1992. at 140 medals, the nation seems unlikely to catch the u.s. count of 2,219. there are a few "swedes" in baseball lore (most notoriously, swede risberg of the 1919 black sox), but norwegian-americans do not have an outsized influence on sports such as football, basketball, and baseball. for example, one hall-of-fame lists only babe didrikson, knute rockne, and jan stenerud.
i don't blame my double-digit 40 time on my ethnic heritage, of course, nor do i believe that i'd be a great ski jumper simply because i'm norwegian-american. [i've been a-scared of ski jumps since wide world of sports. whenever i ski, i still worry about taking a wrong turn and hurtling down a ramp to certain death.]
i'm no expert on the sociology of sport, but i think that norwegian dominance in the winter games might make for an interesting example in sociology classes that will take up thorny issues of race, nationality, and sport this week. nobody could seriously suggest that norwegians have a superior genetic endowment for cross-country skiing. yet i hear such arguments made routinely about other groups of athletes in sports such as distance running or basketball (usually by coaches, just before they get fired). rather, most people seem to understand that norwegians have a rich cultural history of participation in winter sports and much snow upon which to ski.
of course, norwegians take great national pride in the winter olympics, sometimes to the point of needling their less-successful neighbors. my favorite sportswriter, patrick reusse, tells a tale from the salt lake games in 2002 [caveat: as with every reusse story, the particulars change a bit with each retelling and i'm likely to butcher them here]. fiji and some other nations lacking storied cultural traditions in winter events were participating for the first time. reveling in success a few days into the games, the norwegian press breathlessly reported every new medal. one norwegian paper reportedly featured this headline: NORWAY GAINS ANOTHER GOLD: SWEDES TIED WITH FIJI.
of course, national sports comparisons are ever-changing and always relative. it wasn't that long ago that americans assumed they had cornered the world basketball market. sometime between dirk nowitzke and yao ming this position went from untenable to ridiculous. i'll bet that somewhere along the line a fijian writer needled a colleague from tonga about being tied with poor norway in the world golf rankings.