One might think that the success of the Ingebrigtsen brothers, who hail from a small town near the small city of Stavanger, Norway, is the very definition of ‘outliers.’ Norway has always been more famous for its occasional domination of winter sports like cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and speedskating than track. But all three sports require outrageous fitness for world domination–and Norway has been delivering on that, in its own quiet way, for generations.
Take Grete Waitz, one of the most successful female marathoners in history. If only she hadn’t died so young (in 2011, at age 57, of cancer), we might have witnessed many more years of success and inspiration, similar to what we have seen from runners like Joan Benoit Samuelson (winner of the first women’s Olympic marathon, in Los Angeles in 1984) and Kathrine Switzer (first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, in 1967).
Waitz embodied the Norwegian personality to a T, refusing to draw attention to herself, taking the subway to her first marathon (in New York, in 1978, where she won and set a new course record), and disappearing into the crowd after her win when the media were looking for her, according to a set of reminiscences in Runners World published upon her passing.
Only a few short months ago, Norway dominated the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The New York Times marvelled at the Norwegian men’s alpine ski team’s domination and attributed their success to a “contrarian mix of humility, egalitarianism and basic respect” and the “no jerks” philosophy. (Clearly they did quite a bit of training, too.) And an article in Time magazine pointed to the country’s policy of not allowing score-keeping, weighing of athletes or anything else associated with competition until kids are 13, a policy that allows them to develop at their own rate and revel in the joy of physical activity for its own sake.
Norway is obsessed with athletics and fitness. Even the most urban of urban-dwellers have their kids out on cross-country skis almost before they can walk. In his Sweat Science column in Outside magazine, Canadian science journalist Alex Hutchinson refers to a review article in last month’s International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance authored by researchers from the Norwegian Olympic Federation and two Norwegian universities. They wanted to take a long look at what we have learned about peak fitness, and Hutchinson delves into the arcana of what they learned.
But that’s not our focus here. What’s interesting is that, according to Hutchinson, the authors completely ignore two titans of Norwegian fitness. Why? Because the science behind their stats may be suspect.
Hutchinson mentions that since the 1990s, the highest VO2 max in history was attributed to Norwegian cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie, who won 12 Olympic medals and whose VO2 max was a reported 96 mL/kg/min. But when doing research for his book Endure, Hutchinson discovered that that measurement was likely wrong. And In 2012, a young Norwegian cyclist named Oskar Svendsen won the junior time trial at the world cycling championships a few weeks after producing a 97.5–but disappeared from the cycling scene not long after. Moreover, Hutchinson notes that though these figures were bandied about by the media, scientists didn’t talk about them, possibly because they didn’t trust that the data were accurate.
Only one thing is certain: we’re going to see a lot more of Jakob Ingebrigtsen on podiums around the world in the coming years.