Which nation is best in Nordic elite sport? The 2018 report from SNE now available

Michael Andersen
Scandinavian Network for Elite Sport

Scandinavian Network for Elite Sport (SNE) is a cooperation between Section of Sport Science, Aarhus University (AU), Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science, University of Gothenburg (GU), Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Norway (NSSS) and Department of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, Finland (JYU

The overall aim of the network is to develop and strengthen collaboration, research and knowledge exchange in the area of Nordic elite sports as well as to facilitate the development of world-leading Nordic research in this area. The objectives of SNE is research collaboration of highest international standard; collaboration in MA theses and PhD projects with supervision from experienced researchers at the partner institutions; and dissemination of knowledge with colleges and universities, sports federations, private companies, clubs, coaches, athletes and citizens across the Nordic countries and internationally.

SNE has selected five fields of research, where the partner institutions have specific scientific knowledge and where collaboration can create added Nordic values:

    • Youth sport and talent development
    • Dual Career
    • Training and nutrition
    • Strength training
    • Match analysis.

In a recently published report, commissioned by SNE and following upon its post-Olympic symposiums in November 2016 (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and June 2018 (University of Jyväskylä, Finland), an attempt has been made to comparatively analyze the four Nordic nations in terms of their successes in international elite sport. The report is summarized here, with a link to the full report.

The Daish handball team in the 2016 Olympics.

The report focuses on elite sport in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, from historical and current perspectives. The four Nordic nations have far more similarities than dissimilarities. They are all strong welfare models. This model forms values, standards, structures and organization of a number of areas in society, including sport for all and elite sports. All four nations sit high in international rankings of e.g. economy, education, and health or trust in public authorities. But how well do the four nations perform, both globally and among each other, when it comes to elite sports? Why have they chosen four different elite sports models? Which of the nations are prioritizing the winter or summer sports, and what sports – Olympic or non-Olympic – are strongest in each nation? These questions are answered in the report.

It is difficult to make valid comparative analyses of each nation’s performance in international elite sport. This is due to a number of methodological challenges. There is consensus that many factors influence a nation’s sports results, for instance population size, economic wealth (GNP), political system and religious factors, economic resources for elite sport, management and organization of sport policy, participation in sport, talent identification and development, support during and after the athletes’ careers, training facilities, coach education, participation in national and international competitions, and research and innovation in elite sports. However, there are other factors, which has influence on a nation’s sporting potential and results, e.g. climate, geography, historical traditions, and strong cultures in individual sports.

A diverse network of clubs with competent children and youth coaches in combination with high material standard and good sports facilities have been the main reasons why the Nordic nations for more than a century have been among the best sporting nations in the world, not least when the nation’s relatively small populations are taken into account, both in winter sports and summer sports.

Swedish swimmers in the 2016 Olympics.

In the last four years, there has been more ups than downs for the Nordic nations in international elite sport. Norway is among the world’s best winter sports nations. Sweden is a nation that traditionally does well, both in summer and winter sports. Denmark has, especially in the last decade, performed well in summer sports, particularly in Rio 2016, where Danish athletes and teams won 15 medals – the best Danish Olympic performance since London 1948. Both Sweden and Norway achieved historic success at Sochi 2014. Norway won a total of 29 Olympic medals in 6 different sports. Sweden won a total of 15 Olympic medals, four medals more than Vancouver 2010. Sweden also made progress in Rio 2016 with 11 Olympic medals compared to the outcome of London 2012, where “only” 8 medals were won. Norway’s lackluster performance in summer sports in the years before Rio 2016 were sadly repeated in Rio 2016, where they “only” won 4 bronze medals. Finland won a total of 5 Olympic medals in Sochi 2014 – the same amounts of medals as Vancouver 2010. Unfortunately, a progress in results in summer sports wasn’t realized in Rio 2016, where Finland only won one medal – the poorest results ever for Finland in the Summer Olympics and two medals less than in London 2012.

Sweden appears to be the best sporting nation in Scandinavia, if we assume an historical perspective for both Olympic and non-Olympic sports. Sweden is among the world’s top 20 nations in both summer and winter sports when measured against the nation’s population of around 10 million. Sweden is among the world’s three best sporting nations. It is worth noting that Sweden’s performance in the Olympic sports since the turn of the millennium has fallen and there is definitely an untapped potential for Sweden in several summer sports. Based on recent years’ results in winter sports there is reason to believe that Sweden will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their position.

Norway is – in the past as well as presently – by far the best winter sports nation in Scandinavia. Both at the Olympics, World Championships and World Cups, there are many and proud traditions of Norwegian athletes and teams on the winners’ podium, and it is not unrealistic that Norway is the best sport nation at the Winter Olympics 2018 – despite the nation’s tiny population of just over 5 million.

Finland is still a strong winter sports nation with a lot of good performance at the winter Olympic, World Championships and World Cups. In ice hockey Finland, both men’s and women’s team are among the best nations in the world. Based on the current results from the last few years it’s still a realistic goal for Finland to win at least 5 medals or more at the Winter Olympics 2018. Like Norway there is a definitely potential for improvement for Finland at the next summer games in Tokyo 2020, both in relation to medals and top 8 rankings.

Denmark is currently the best summer sporting nation among the Nordic nations. There are many reasons, including climate, geography and lack of traditions as to why Denmark – unlike Norway, Sweden and Finland – will never be a winter sports nation. Nine medals in London 2012 and especially the success in the Rio games 2016 with 15 medals in nine different sports were historic achievements, which in recent years has been complemented by world-class results, particularly in orienteering, bowling, speedway and sport dancing.

 The full report is available HERE! in English and HERE! in Danish.

Copyright © Michael Andersen 2018

Contact information: Michael Andersen, project manager
Scandinavian Network for Elite Sport, SNE
web: http://www.sne.au.dk/
phone: +45 51 26 60 62
mail: micand57@gmail.com

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