"Sports has played a massive part in my life", Mr Abid Raja, Norway’s Minister of Culture & Equality
Luca Arfini, a young communications professional from Italy, has started a new series of interviews with high-level figures involved in sports and in its promotion across Europe. The first one to be interviewed is Mr. Abid Raja, Norway’s Minister of Culture and Equality.
Abid Raja was born in Norway but has Pakistani origins; he was one of the first persons in Norwegian politics with minority background to be nominated at such high-level position. Before entering into politics, he worked as a criminal defense lawyer, having the chance to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable ones and to fight any injustice towards ethnic minorities. In his current mandate, among other things, he is responsible for Norway’s sport policy.
1. What role does sport play in your life?
Sports has played a massive part in my life. When I was a kid, I used to play basketball all day long. Even today I have my own small "court" in my backyard. As Minister I work hectic and long days, but I try to engage in training as often as my schedule allows. My kids are active in sports, and I must say that I really enjoy being a sports-dad as well, even though I sometimes wish I could be on the pitch.
2. This January, you were appointed Minister of Culture and Equality and, before that, you held different functions in the Norwegian Parliament, being one of the first persons with a minority background to acquire a high-level position in Norwegian politics. Can you please tell us a bit about your background and how you arrived where you are now?
If I could tell 15-year-old Abid Raja that one day he would be the Minister of Culture and Equality in the Norwegian Government, he would never have believed it. Even when I took my law degree at the University of Oslo, and then my master's degree at the University of Oxford, politics was never something that I really saw as a career path for myself. Now, I hope that my story also can work as an inspiration for others. In Norway, you can become whatever you want to be, regardless of your background, if you work hard.
3. As Minister of Culture and Equality, among other things, you will have to shape Norway’s sport policies. What are your priorities in terms of youth sport and youth sports culture?
The Norwegian government has for decades, and independent of its political composition, had children and youth (aged 6-25) as the main target groups for its sports policy. In practice, this means that the bulk of the funding for sport goes to support construction of facilities and activity measures particularly aimed at those groups. I must mention that the government does not itself build facilities or administer sports activities. Facilities are mainly built by municipalities and sports clubs, and sports activities are provided by the sports clubs. The government contributes to top-up funding. Although sports clubs and the rest of the Norwegian sports organisation is self-governed and operates independently of the government, there is a close correlation to the priorities of the government and the sports organisation – where access of facilities and activities for children and youth is most important. Nevertheless, studies show that, whereas almost all Norwegian girls and boys participate in sport during childhood, there is a significant drop in participation when they reach adolescence. I think this is a pattern we see in most countries as people develop other interests and priorities when they get older. However, since being physically active is good for your body and mind, I think we need to try harder to make it attractive for people to stay longer in sport and to be physically active through to adulthood. Elements contributing to this could be greater emphasis on facilities and sports activities of a more leisurely character, with less focus on competition and winning. In recent years we have had a stronger focus on such aspects, both when providing funding for facilities and in our approach to activities.
4. According to the Eurostat data, Norway is one of the countries in Europe with the highest proportions of citizens exercising at least two and a half hours per week and this is also true for the rest of the Nordic countries. Why do you think northern Europeans seem to be more willing to adopt a healthy lifestyle?
This is a difficult question to answer. I think we have to consider a number of factors. One is history and tradition. Norway, and most of the other parts of the Nordic countries were until a couple of generations ago by and large rural societies, which meant that a large part of the population had to earn their living from physical labour, often outdoors. I believe this has created a tradition whereby Norwegians (and other Nordic people) still identify themselves as outdoor people utilising their bodies to wear oneself out through physical exercise is by many considered a positive thing. Second, sport has a strong tradition in Norway and we love our sports heroes and heroines. Norwegians like to identify themselves as sporting people and if asked, I think they would name "love of sport" as one of the strongest identity markers for being a Norwegian. Third, the sports organisation and sports clubs enjoy a very strong position in many local communities and they offer physical activity opportunities, as well as, a social network to the population, and in particular to children and youth. We believe that a healthy side-effect to the targeting of children and youth in our sports policy is that if you manage to introduce sound leisure time activities in childhood they tend to stay with you also in adulthood. Fourth, we are blessed with nature and space in Norway and the other Nordic countries. I think many Norwegians find it attractive to use nature for recreational purposes. Hiking, cross-country skiing, jogging, biking and other forms of training and physical activity in nature is very popular among Norwegians, and people, even in Oslo, have access to nature practically at their doorstep.
5. Besides contributing to your wellbeing and helping to live a healthier life, what do you believe are the additional values of practicing sports and physical activity regularly?
I would like to point out that the main reason for providing governmental funding to sport is not its contribution to public health – that comes as a beneficial side-effect. The government funds sport because sport is fun. Sport brings joy and happiness into people's life and contributes to sound and positive leisure time activities, in particular for our children and youth. The local sports clubs are often the main social hub in local communities, and many Norwegians get their first experience with democratic organisations and voluntary work in the local sports club. I believe strongly that to practice sport and physical activity at a regular basis improves your mental, as well as your physical health.
6. Who is your favorite sports star and why?
Michael Jordan. I always pictured myself "being" Michael Jordan when I played basketball during my childhood. Now, when I shoot some hoops in my own "court", I sometimes still imagine that I win the NBA Finals.