Could Norway’s top triathletes medal in Tokyo?

In a country where winter sports reign supreme, a trio of triathletes has been steadily edging Norway towards the top of the podium. After taking both the ITU Grand Final and 70.3 World Titles in 2019, we met the team targeting Tokyo…

Credit: Red Bull

Name a famous Norwegian sportsperson. Football fans might shout out, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Alf Inge and Erling Haaland. Or, if you’re a fan of pro skiing, Aksel Lund Svindal. Google ‘famous Norwegian sportspeople’, and, apart from the footballers, you’ll find speed skaters, cross-country skiers, biathletes, alpine skiers, ski jumpers… you get the idea. 

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Norwegians love, and excel at, their winter sports, which isn’t surprising given its geographical location, where their ski season can start as early as November and last until July. They have at least 180 words to describe snow. Other fun Norway sports stats: It’s won more medals at Winter Olympics than any other country, mainly in cross-country skiing and speed skating. Norway and Austria are the only two countries to have won more medals at the Winter Olympics than in Summer Games. Since 1900, when Norway first entered the Summer Olympics, its athletes have collected a total of 152 medals; since 1924, and the first Winter Games, the country of just five million people has won 132 golds.

“These guys have an extreme need to come first. They are obsessed about winning,” the country’s chef de mission Tore Ovrebo told the BBC in an interview shortly after the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, where Norway topped the medal table for the eighth time. In the same interview, their super G bronze medallist Kjetil Jansrud mentioned their “no jerks” rule on the team. It’s not surprising then, to find that the same mentality and guidelines apply to the small group of Norwegian triathletes and coaches we met and spoke to for this feature. A small group that already contains a 70.3 world champion and two World Tri Series  (WTS) race winners.

Fortuitous timing

We say small because there are only 10 elite athletes on the national team, of which three men and one woman race on the WTS circuit and will be racing in Tokyo next week – Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden, Caspar Stornes and Lotte Miller, who finished 23rd in the 2019 World Tri Series  women’s rankings. (There are plans to grow the female pro team, more on which later.)

The Norwegian Triathlon Federation was actually founded back in 1985 (the British Triathlon Association, as it was then called, only started three years prior) after their first triathlon races took place in 1983. In 1994, the Federation became a member of the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports, but it wasn’t until the late Noughties, when three young guys from the same school in the town of Bergen, started to show some potential at their local tri club. Blummenfelt and Stornes started out as track runners, while Iden was a national-level cyclist. None of them into the Alpine sports, fortuitously, as Bergen sees more rain than snow.

Fast-forward a decade or so and Blummenfelt, Iden and Stornes are less than a week away from donning their national colours on the Tokyo start line. Their road to selection being an uncharacteristically easy one, with zero pressure to meet a stringent governing body’s qualifying criteria. No agonising wait to find out if they’ve made the team. Not that any of the trio aren’t worthy of an Olympic starting berth. Their respective success since they entered the elite ranks (2013 for Blummenfelt and Iden; 2016 for Stornes) has been swift. Blummenfelt is already an Olympian, having become the first Norwegian to represent tri at the Rio Games in 2016, where he finished a respectable 13th. But next Monday (6:30am Japan time), the trio will toe that hallowed start line as team, a team with strong medal chances.

Meet the Norwegian team

Above image by Wagner Araujo/ITU

So first up, Iden, a name you’ll know from having upset Alistair Brownlee’s day in Nice back in September 2019 when he took the 70.3 world title on the first time of asking. What’s more, the 25-year-old blasted the Cote d’Azur course on a road bike.

More will know the name Blummenfelt. A 27-year-old powerhouse of an athlete, who led a two-man breakaway on the 40km bike leg of the 2014 World Champs in Edmonton, Canada, helping the aforementioned Yorkshireman to his 17th World Tri Series race victory.

While Red Bull-sponsored Blummenfelt will probably never be known for his elegant run style, it’s the sheer speed, brute force and determination that finally saw him take that elusive win at the end of August, at the 2019 ITU Grand Final in Lausanne. After three second-place finishes in both the 2017 and 2018 WTS seasons, the result was a fitting end to what was then the pre-Olympic year for an athlete who relishes a leave-it-all-out-there style of racing. “If you want to push the pace, you need to make sure that people behind you are suffering,” says Blummenfelt.

While Stornes, the ‘baby’ of the group at 24, has yet to post a ‘big’ win like his compatriots, he’s still no stranger to the podium. His most notable result came in the Norwegian podium sweep at the 2018 Bermuda WTS, the first men’s team to complete such a feat, where he took the top step ahead of Blummenfelt and Iden, respectively.

Stornes’ other sit-up-and-take-notice moment was at the Tokyo Olympics Test Event, in August, where he finished second behind Canada’s Tyler Mislawchuk. Iden finished fourth; Blummenfelt crashed out on the bike (“I try to look on the bright side,” says Blummenfelt when we catch up with him in Jersey at the Super League Triathlon. “I didn’t show my card.”) Unlike the women’s event the day before, where the run was shortened to a 5K because of the heat, the men’s went ahead as planned in temperatures in the high-20s.

Testing conditions

So how does a group of athletes from one of the coldest countries on the planet prepare for racing conditions in what many are predicting will be the hottest Olympics’ triathlon event on record? (Click here to read Tim Heming’s thoughts on this).

Before 2019’s test event, the team trained in Thailand, in Phuket, and then of course there was the test event itself. Test events have usually been just that, a chance for the athletes to test out the course, so they rarely mimic the following year’s outcome. But for Iden, Tokyo was different. “I think more people put more energy into that test event than previous years because it was the only real test of the conditions. I’d say that test event was more telling than normal.”

Despite their combined confidence going into the real event, doing whatever they can in training to mimic the conditions has been central to their regime. When we spoke to them for this original feature at the end of 2o19, Blummenfelt acknowledged that he responds better to heat training than to altitude, “because I get more response from the blood plasma.”

“For me,” said Iden, “altitude training works really well. Kristian’s strength is his ability to use oxygen, he has huge lungs, so I think he’s already almost maxed out in that kind of ability. I have the speed and better tolerance for heat.”

Their pre-Games lead-up has seen them set up shop in Bolquère, Pyrénées, ticking off the altitude element of their training. As for the heat aspect, all three raced the Yokohama WTCS event in May this year, the event being important for its proximity to Tokyo (a 45-minute drive). Blummenfelt won, Iden was ninth and Stornes 18th.

Follow the science

Being trailblazers in a new Olympic sport for their country could have had its drawbacks. Where and how to focus their training? But for the squad, it was simple – look to their winter Olympic counterparts.

“We have a long history in endurance sports,” enthuses Iden. “So we can use what the other sports have used before us; what they’ve perfected over the years and take the knowledge, then we can develop it even better.

“The principle of training is the same,” he continues. “The scientific entry to performance is really good in Norway. It’s good that we don’t have the triathlon past because I think triathlon in the past was more like trying stuff and suddenly winning. You didn’t know what made you win. But you continue to do it because that’s what you thought was the reason you won. We have no bias towards what’s smart and what’s not, we just go purely scientific into the training. Like with altitude, we travel a lot to Font-Romeu in France, where so many speed walkers have been. Even though it’s a different sport, we’re following them from a scientific perspective. Also, we have some really smart heads working with us.”

One of those heads is Olav Aleksander Bu, described by both Iden and Blummenfelt as “one of the smartest guys in the whole world.” A self-taught engineer by trade, Olav started up a company which specialises in wind ‘kites’. When he’s not changing the way we produce energy, he analyses the Norwegian tri team’s training.

“It’s really inspiring to work with him because he can really figure out anything,” says Iden. “So if you have a question, he might not know the answer straight away but he’ll read up, learn, then a week later he will be one of the leaders in that field.”

Together with Arild Tveiten, the squad’s head coach, who was involved in the development of Polar’s first multisport watches, they’ve put science at the very heart of their training ethos. “Olav is the guy with the numbers who does the training analyses,” says Tveiten when we talk over Skype. “And I’m the one who puts the programmes together. We’re scientific in the way we train and we try to be two steps ahead of other countries.”

From lab testing, the squad discovered that they had an inefficiency in their VO2 max. So they put in more VO2 max sessions for a few weeks at the start of 2019, were retested after three weeks and saw key improvements. “We try to use all the numbers to our advantage,” says Blummenfelt. “Over time we use this [data] to find patterns, and work out the best way to improve any weaknesses.”

This approach came into its own at the World 70.3 Champs in September 2019, when both Iden and Blummenfelt were vying for the title. “We just calculated how we thought the race would unfold,” says Tveiten. “Gustav forgot a lot of his nutrition, but the good thing was that because we’d done the calculations, we knew how much nutrition he needed. So he just started to get in drinks at the aid stations. We were still missing a little bit because I knew he should be able to run a 1:07hr half-marathon. But with Alistair [Brownlee] in front on the bike, all the best pros were pushing a little bit harder, so everyone was tired when they started the run. Gustav was less tired. Kristian should have been a bit higher up, but I think it was the new bike as he’d only had a few rides on it. If we’d been able to tune that in a little bit better, he would have worked much more economically and would probably be up there in the top two.”

Gender imbalance

So the science is there, the team dynamic is there, and the will to success is there in spades… but where are the women? In a sport that prides itself on gender equality, the lack of female representation in the squad is something Tveiten is very keen to rectify for 2024.

“For us, it’s a really big goal to be competitive in the mixed relay in 2024. So the next obvious step is working to have more women. Miller will be going to Tokyo, but the other ones are not so good yet. But they’re hard-working and I think we will be able to achieve that.”

Norway is a country used to achieving sporting greatness, something that this young Norwegian team is only too aware of. But by harnessing that rich heritage, adopting the best techniques from their winter brethren, and working with the best people and science that the 21st century has to offer, this new generation of Olympic-distance talent is in a fantastic position from which to make a real impact on the global stage.

“Yes, we are happy,” admits Tveiten. “We have a little bit of progress each year. And we now have three athletes who are prepared for a medal in the Tokyo Olympics.”

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Google ‘famous Norwegian sportspeople’ in a week’s time, and there might be a few new additions.