Note: Having read about 50 articles on how to write blog headlines for search engine optimization (SEO) and return on investment (ROI), my considered decision was to go with this one, which is highly unlikely to satisfy anyone with an MBA. It is a consciously passive-aggressive move on my part as a writer, the point of which I will address in another blog.
A signature moment in media mistakes during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics coverage came in the closing ceremony, as the final medal awards were covered. Most North Americans will have missed the blooper; Scandinavia certainly did not.
While the Olympic Committee distributed the medals properly, and the athletes were in their correct places on the podium, the Canadian media decided that “cross-country” applied to something other than skiing. Titles on the broadcast listed Johan Olsson, the Swedish bronze-medal winner in the 50K mass start, as a gold-winning Norwegian, and Petter Northug, the Norwegian gold-medal winner, as a bronze-winning Swede.
The moment was the last Olympic opening for a display of the ongoing rivalry between these two countries that sit next door to each other, share a common heritage – a local friend wryly said, “Danish” – and have a highly similar language. (As you can see by my headline, the Norwegian language just tends to go on a bit longer. But then, the country is bit longer. No, it is not bigger; that would be Sweden. Oh, bother.)
Throughout the Winter Olympic games, these two nations tracked each other’s medal count with as much vigor as the United States tracked the Soviet Union’s during Cold War Olympic events – if with far more teasing than anxiety. Karl Ritter’s Associated Press report on the rivalry highlighted comments from Norwegian skiers Northug and Emil Hegle Svendsen that losing to Swedes was worse than not getting gold. In the aftermath of Northug’s win in the 50K, Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, among others, hunted down Swedish cross-country star Gunde Svan, now a board member with the International Ski Federation, to record his belief that Northug needs to be “more humble.” (This belief, by the way, is shared by many Norwegians, though the fact that the comments come from Svan may make it less likely that they’ll admit it.)
The 50K medal ceremony gaffe caught my attention when Norway’s Aftenposten ran the story with the classic caption:
Gold winner Petter Northug waves to the audience at the closing ceremony along with Axel Teichmann and Johan Olsson – the latter undoubtedly Swedish.
It was the word “undoubtedly” – “uten tvil” in Norwegian – that caught me. Northug has “Norway” written on his jacket, which is not such a subtle cultural cue that it should confuse North American title writers. But Olsson’s being “undoubtedly Swedish” is really marked only by Sweden’s colors, gold and blue, in his attire – colors also worn by German Teichmann.
If anyone is “undoubtedly” anything, Northug is undoubtedly Norwegian, and there only by his clothing. I was instantly reminded of Norwegian writer Odd Børretzen’s identification technique in his wonderful book How to Understand and Use a Norwegian (available at Amazon.com only in used copies):
The best way to tell whether the Norwegian is a Norwegian is to say: «Are you Swedish?»
Regardless of whether you say this in English, French, Italian, Japanese, Urdu or Swahili, he will answer:
«Swedish? Me? I’m a Norwegian!»
Then you will be able to tell.
So, for non-Scandinavian readers, what is this fuss all about? It’s clearly not up to the semi-violent nature of the Philadelphia Eagles-Dallas Cowboys football team rivalry; it’s not on a par with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin rumbling about “organizational changes” after his country took only 15 medals.
What it is, a Norwegian friend explained, is an inferiority complex – “mindreverdgihetskompleks” in Norwegian, “mindervärdeskomplex” in Swedish – that plays out now on both sides. And as Ritter’s AP article (cited above) notes, the rivalry is rooted in both history and branding: from Sweden’s former rule over Norway, through the rise and fall of Swedish companies Volvo and Saab, to Norway’s present dominance in the oil and natural gas industries (resulting in a national combined budget and pension fund surplus for 2010 projected at roughly $29 billion, or NOK 172.2 billion).
While having an inferiority complex when you have a budget surplus, not to mention full national health care and pensions, may seem incredible to U.S. readers especially, it’s not unlike an account another friend told me about him and his brother. My friend, the elder, spent most of his adolescent years teasing and jibing at his younger sibling. Then one day, in the midst of such a bout, the younger sibling stood up – and my friend realized that he had grown almost a head taller and considerably heavier than his older brother.
The Scandinavian brands of inferiority complex are not the same as ones we experience in Philadelphia. Here, our media cheerily seize on every bad ranking we receive: from Travel & Leisure magazine’s 2007 poll citing Philadelphians as the “least attractive” residents from among 25 American cities, to Men’s Fitness magazine in 2009 landing us among the top 25 fattest cities (#20, with some really bad grades in other areas), to Forbes.com’s January 2010 listing of us as #20 among the top 200 miserable cities in the country. Our battles are with a host of media determined to highlight our inadequacy and keep us in a state of low self-esteem.
In this, I’m afraid, we are “undoubtedly” American.