I've been in Norway this week. Since this column is called Weird World of Sport I thought that I'd do an in-depth survey of the sporting habits of a country that you might know or care very little about. I'm dedicated, you see. I'm not one of these writers who just fires out the first thing that comes into his head every week. Oh no, not me, I'm a professional. I left my family all alone in the badlands of the Cotswolds just so that I could go do this important report for you. All alone I was ... in the land of plentiful blondes ... don't ever say that I don't care...
Technically, the biggest sport in Norway is cross-country skiing – Oslo is surrounded by forests and hills known as the Marka and most of the population spend a lot of time up there cross-country skiing. The thing is, I don't really count that as a sport, it's just a way of ... getting about, walking over snow. No, the really big sport, the one that runs thick in the Norwegian blood, is ski jumping. Looming over the capital city is the world's oldest ski jump – the Holmenkollen, built in 1892 and one of Norway's biggest tourist draws. The Holmenkollen holds a very special place in the hearts of Norwegians. Every year on the last day of March, thousands of them troop up the mountain in full national costume, ringing their cowbells, to watch the imaginatively named "Big Ski Jump". I've actually always been interested in ski jumping ... from a distance that is. I was really looking forward to seeing the thing in the fleisch. Upon my arrival in a cold and windy Oslo, I checked into my hotel and then hailed a taxi with the glorious instruction – "take me to the ski jump".
I'd heard that you could climb right up to the top of the thing and stare down into the adrenalin abyss. I had it all planned: I was going to get kitted out, put the skis on and stand at the top looking like I was about to take the plunge. It would have been a brilliant photo and would have really made this piece. As it was I arrived at a depressing building site – the Holmenkollen had been demolished, three days before my arrival. I couldn't believe it. It turns out that Oslo had wanted to host the 2011 Nordic World Ski Championships. The governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), had told Norway that the Holmenkollen didn't "meet their standards". If I'd been Norway, I'd have told the FIS to go jump in a fjord. I am not, however, Norway and so they decided to knock the Holmenkollen down and build two new jumps. They have subsequently been awarded the Championships in 2011, which is a consolation of sorts, but I think it's a big shame that they caved in. It's not in keeping with their Viking heritage. If you ask me, they should have popped down to the headquarters of the FIS for a spot of rape and pillage ... but they didn't ask me and I'll let it go now. This year will be the first since 1892 that the "Big Ski Jump" event doesn't take place. It will be a big black hole in the Oslo social and sporting calendar. God, listen to me ... I've been here three days and I'm a Norwegian heritage activist. It's definitely not just some line to impress the extraordinary amount of beautiful blondes who appear on every corner here, no sir ... definitely not ... I really care about old ski jumps ... and rollmop herrings ... I love the stuff, I promise you, lovely Birgitta, I really do ...
Even having seen the bare bones of the Holmenkollen was enough to give me new-found respect for ski jumpers. I remember laughing at Eddie the Eagle's pathetic attempts at the Winter Olympics in Calgary – he was unkindly called a "snow dropper" by one Italian journalist. I know that I wouldn't have been able to do it. He flew for 78 metres – that's a bloody long way to be in the air. I asked my cab driver, a Sikh from the Punjab, whether he knew how you would even start learning to do the sport.
"Sir, all I know is that I get to this country when I am six and all my Norwegian schoolmates are disappearing up the mountain at weekends to be thrown off jumps – they know no fear at that age..." He laughed, his eyes dancing with nostalgia in the mirror.
"Did you ever have a go?" I asked.
"Me ... not bloody likely ... I'm not a lunatic." His eyes has stopped dancing and were now looking at me in a scornful manner.
You can lead a Punjabi to Oslo, but you can't make him jump.
Tight shorts and lack of midfield action make for a very dull show
The other big sporting passion in Norway is handball. The national women's team won a gold medal in Beijing and the game is extremely popular over here. Quite astonishingly, it is the second most played sport in Europe after football. The team game was established at the end of the 19th century in northern Europe and the UK is about the only country that doesn't play it – who'd have known? I went to see a match when I was in Beijing and have to admit to having been a tad bored. There were moments of excitement, especially when someone got themselves into an extraordinary aerial position from which to fire at the goal – but there was something lacking. It's that lack of midfield action that I've mentioned before. That, coupled with men in slightly too tight shorts. I imagine that the Norwegian women's version is probably a better watch: sadly, I couldn't get tickets.
Bandy just dandy if you're a little mental
Weirdest Norwegian sport? Bandy. It's a blend of ice hockey and football played on an ice pitch the size of a soccer field with 11 players a side. Mental.Reuse content