Norway competed in a UEFA Elite Round match of the women's under-17 soccer championship in March. The costs of youth sports in Norway are low, and travel teams aren't formed until the teenage years.
A decade ago, I wrote a book that comprehensively surveyed the landscape of youth sports. I wanted to know: How did the United States become the world's sports superpower while producing such a physically inactive population? What contribution, if any, did our sports ecosystem play in producing these seemingly opposite outcomes? And, has any nation figured out a more effective model?
France. Germany. Australia. Canada. Spain. Cuba. China. I studied them all.
A few weeks ago, finally, I found what I think is my answer.
Imagine a society in which 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports. Where costs are low, the economic barriers to entry few, travel teams aren't formed until the teenage years — and where adults don't start sorting the weak from the strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests. Then, the most promising talents become the most competitive athletes in the world, on a per-capita basis.
I am talking about Norway.
The country found its way onto my radar in a meaningful way last year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Norway, a nation of just 5.3 million, won more medals, 39, than any other country in the history of the Winter Games.
The United States finished fourth, with 23 medals. I was helping host a podcast for NBC Sports and interviewed the head of Norway's Olympic delegation, who explained that the country's system prioritizes participation through age 13 and, after that, surrounds top prospects with great coaching.
In late March I spent a week in Norway, visiting community clubs and talking to an array of stakeholders, including children.
"I like being outside and active with my friends," Julia Stusvik-Eide, an 11-year-old from Oslo, told me at her neighborhood club as she balanced on cross-country skis with the aid of two classmates, arm-in-arm.
Julia's comment is hardly a revelation. These are the priorities of most children, anywhere in the world. What's distinctive about Norway's sport model is how deliberately it tries to align with those needs.
The country's Children's Rights in Sport is a document unlike any other in the world, a declaration that underpins its whole sports ecosystem. Introduced in 1987 and updated in 2007 by the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports, the eight-page statement describes the type of experience that every child in the country must be provided, from safe training environments to activities that facilitate friendships.
The statement places a high value on the voices of youth. Children "must be granted opportunities to participate in planning and execution of their own sport activities," according to the document. They may "decide for themselves how much they would like to train," and can even opt out of games if they just want to practice.
Want to transfer clubs in midseason? Go ahead, no penalty. Suit up with a rival club next week, if you wish.
"We believe the motivation of children in sport is much more important than that of the parent or coach," said Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation. "We're a small country and can't afford to lose them because sport is not fun."
All 54 national sport federations voted to adopt and abide by Children's Rights in Sport, which also describes the type of activities not allowed by member clubs. No national championships before age 13. No regional championships before age 11, or even publication of game scores or rankings. Competition is promoted but not at the expense of development and the Norwegian vision: "Joy of Sport for All."
Violate the rules, and a federation or club risks losing access to government grants, generated from proceeds of sports betting and other gambling to help build facilities and fund programming.
"We have the same platform in Norway's schools," Andersen said, referring to a policy of waiting until a child is 13 to issue grades. "It's impossible to say at 8 or 10 or 12 who is going to be talented in school or sport. That takes another 10 years. Our priority is the child becoming self-reflective about their bodies and minds."
Many American schools wait to introduce grades as well, of course. But in the anything-goes world of youth sports, we have second-grade AAU national championships, $3,000-a-year club fees and hordes of unlicensed trainers ready to assist in the chase for playing time. Youth sports are now a $16 billion industry bankrolled by parents who are often unaware of the science of athletic development and nervous that the bullet train of opportunity will leave the station if their child doesn't hop on, year-round, at age 8.
I found little of this anxiety in Norway. Just mild frustration from the more ambitious parents and young athletes about the constraints on testing their talents beyond the local level at early ages.
Anders Mol, a star in beach volleyball, was among those. He was a prodigy whose parents played volleyball for the national team. He just didn't have many playmates while growing up in a remote hamlet in the westernmost fjords. From Oslo, I had to take a plane, a car and a ferry just to reach Strandvik, where there was no beach volleyball court until his father, Kaare, brought in sand by barge from Denmark when Anders was a boy.
Now, Anders, 21, is the best in the world, the international volleyball federation's Most Outstanding Player for 2018. He and his playing partner, Christian Sorum, are called the Beach Volley Vikings. Anders told me that as a child he was bothered by having to wait to compete elsewhere against other young players.
At the same time, he said, that delay built a fire in him, while making room in his childhood for other sports that fostered all-around athleticism — now a defining quality of his game. He also liked staying connected to his classmates through sports.
"I understand why we do this," he said of the Children's Rights in Sport framework. "It's good."
Norway is not the United States. One advantage sport leaders in Norway acknowledge is their country's relatively small size, which helps get key stakeholders on the same page about sports policy. Also, families don't need to chase athletic scholarships because college, like health care for youth, is free. Sports is not seen as a way out of a tough neighborhood. Norway is a wealthy nation with oil, gambling and other revenue streams that can be mobilized.