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DOMINIC LAWSON: What we can learn from Norway


As I look out of my window, I can see snow settling on the branches of our trees. The weather front responsible, with Arctic winds bringing temperatures as low as minus 10c in parts of the country, has been dubbed the Troll of Trondheim, after the Norwegian city that sits on the Trondheim Fjord.

This first snow of winter has arrived at the same time as an annual seasonal gift from Norway — the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree.

Presenting this year’s spruce from Oslo to the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly last week, Norway’s foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, said: ‘It is a gift from Norway to the UK, as a symbol of our gratitude for your help against tyranny during World War II.

This first snow of winter has arrived at the same time as an annual seasonal gift from Norway — the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree

This first snow of winter has arrived at the same time as an annual seasonal gift from Norway — the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree

‘This year,’ she continued, ‘it is special for me as we once again have a war in Europe. And once again, the UK and Norway stand united. As we most often do when things get rough.’

There is indeed an affinity. That came across in a peculiar way after an England World Cup defeat. No, not our loss on Saturday to our historic foes, the French: I speak of Norway’s 2-1 victory over England in a World Cup qualifier in Oslo in September 1981.

Respect

No one, at least in this country, had given Norway, whose side largely comprised amateurs, a chance.

But win they did. At the end, the Norwegian commentator, Bjorge Lillelien, in a voice cracking with emotion, yelled: ‘We are the best in the world! We have beaten England!

‘England, birthplace of giants! Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! Vi har slat dem alle sammen! Vi har slat dem alle sammen! [We have beaten them all! We have beaten them all!]

‘Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!’

The Norwegian commentator, Bjorge Lillelien, in a voice cracking with emotion, yelled: ‘We are the best in the world! We have beaten England!

The Norwegian commentator, Bjorge Lillelien, in a voice cracking with emotion, yelled: ‘We are the best in the world! We have beaten England!

Far from offending the English, these remarks, designed for Norwegian radio listeners, became hugely popular here. Partly because they were so unintentionally funny; and partly because we understood that they emanated from a deep sense of respect for the great men and women of our own nation.

More than 40 years on, it is Norway itself — a country with little more than five million inhabitants spread over a land mass half as big again as the UK —that has been producing giants across a range of sports.

In football, there is the literal giant, the 6ft 5in Erling Haaland, who in his first season for Manchester City has continued breaking records as he previously did in the German Bundesliga. In October, the 22-year-old became the first player in the history of the Premier League to score three hat-tricks in successive home games.

The Norwegian national side did not qualify for the World Cup finals in Qatar. It was quite a loss to the event that Haaland, considered by many to be the world’s best footballer, was not there to entertain the billions watching.

In football, there is the literal giant, the 6ft 5in Erling Haaland, who in his first season for Manchester City has continued breaking records as he previously did in the German Bundesliga

In football, there is the literal giant, the 6ft 5in Erling Haaland, who in his first season for Manchester City has continued breaking records as he previously did in the German Bundesliga

At the opposite end of the size spectrum is William Buick, who became this year’s champion jockey of the British flat racing season, finishing far ahead of all rivals.

In a British newspaper interview after collecting his champion’s trophy at Ascot, the highly popular Buick related how, as a child, he would ride his bike to Norway’s one and only racecourse before going to school: ‘It could be anything from minus 5c to minus 15c. Pitch black.’

He added that one morning, when it was ‘minus 20’, he was disappointed to be told ‘the horses weren’t going out’. As the interviewer observed: ‘He is a hard case.’

A similar story lies behind the success of the Norwegian golfer Viktor Hovland, who this month became the first man since Tiger Woods to successfully defend his title in the Hero World Challenge event.

Astounding

Hovland learnt the game inside a converted aircraft hangar shielded from the freezing cold, and said after his latest success: ‘Growing up in Norway, it’s not necessarily great for golf and I think you have to just make do with what you have. Those things just build character.’

I imagine something like this also characterised the ascendancy of the Norwegian tennis player, Casper Ruud, who in September rose to second in the world rankings.

Most spectacularly of all, the world chess champion since 2013 has been the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, now 32. We have got used to it now, but the idea of a Norwegian world chess champion would once have seemed inconceivable. When you think of the resources that Russia, India and China have put into producing champions in this field, Carlsen’s enduring supremacy is astounding.

Last week, I asked the Norwegian Ambassador to this country, Wegger Christian Strommen, to elaborate on the reasons for his country’s remarkable sporting successes

Last week, I asked the Norwegian Ambassador to this country, Wegger Christian Strommen, to elaborate on the reasons for his country’s remarkable sporting successes

You might say that chess is not a sport. Carlsen, a very enthusiastic footballer in his spare time, would dispute that (as a boy, he attended the Norwegian College of Elite Sport, a school for gifted athletes, and his first chess coach, Grandmaster Simen Agdestein, also played football for Norway).

In 2014, I interviewed Carlsen for the BBC while playing him. After demolishing my defences, he declared: ‘For me, chess is first and foremost a sport.

‘I won two key games [in the match that gave him the title] which were very much decided in the fifth and sixth hours, by physical strength. Endurance is very important.’

Endurance is the theme here, and surely reflects the challenge of the Norwegian climate. Some years ago, I took a New Year break there with my family, and was genuinely startled by the intense cold.

At times the temperatures outside were as low as minus 25c. It took my breath away to the extent that I couldn’t even form words. But this was positively pleasant compared with the country’s record low of minus 52.8c.

Heroic

The train that carried us to our destination kept immaculately to the timetable in weather conditions that would cause cancellations in this country — although another train we took made an unscheduled stop for about half an hour.

Eventually the guard explained to us (in English): ‘There is an elk on the line.’ He said this in a very matter-of-fact way. My daughters were impressed.

Last week, I asked the Norwegian Ambassador to this country, Wegger Christian Strommen, to elaborate on the reasons for his country’s remarkable sporting successes.

He replied: ‘When Norway became an independent nation in 1905, its first ambassador here in London was the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

‘Heroic figures respected for daring physical feats, like Nansen — and Roald Amundsen [whose team beat that of his British rival Robert Scott to be the first to the South Pole] — have been important in defining Norway’s sense of itself.

‘But equally important in my view is the very Norwegian concept of ‘dugnad’ — of the community coming together to work on a common goal.

‘This mutual support was key in rural farming and fishing communities throughout our history.’

We might note that it was in part because of those communities that in 1994 the Norwegian people voted ‘No’ to joining the European Union — by the same margin, 52 to 48 per cent, as the British took the decision to leave in 2016. Both peoples have a highly developed sense of separateness.

Not that the Ambassador puts all the Norwegian sporting success down to community spirit: ‘In the end, it is the unique talents and hard work of each individual which creates the results and achievements that we are so proud of.’

I still think it’s got a lot to do with the weather. So let’s get out there and embrace the Troll of Trondheim.



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