Blood On The
The 2018 Winter Olympic Riot
By Chris Oakley
By all rights, the 2018 Trondheim Winter Olympics should have been a spectacular triumph for Norway: it marked the second time in that country’s history it had hosted the Olympic Games1 and the largest-ever medal count for a Scandanavian nation in any Olympic Games, winter or summer. It was also an unprecedented economic achievement in that its costs were financed almost entirely by private companies-- apart from security budgets and the bid with the International Olympic Committee to host the 2018 games, very little of the money for the event came from Norwegian government funds.2
Instead, it ended up going down in history as the scene of one of Norway’s-- and Europe’s --greatest tragedies as long-simmering ethnic tensions between native Norwegians and immigrants from the Middle East blew up in a two-day riot that left much of Trondheim itself in ruins and at one point imperiled the safety of those living in the Olympic Village nearby. How that riot came to pass, and what its consequences were for Norway and the rest of the world, is the focus of our story.
The Trondheim Winter Games had been steeped in controversy well before the riot occurred; even before the opening ceremonies were held Russia had stirred up a hornet’s nest by threatening to boycott the Games in protest of the UN’s alleged indifference to Russian outrage over what Moscow claimed were illegal Norwegian fishing boat operations in Russian waters.3 China actually did boycott the Games in retaliation for sanctions leveled at the Beijing government after the suppression of the 2015 Falun Gong rallies in Shanghai.
The United States and Canada had their own brouhahas to contend with; on the fourth day of the Games a member of the Canadian women’s speedskating team was disqualified after testing positive for Ecstasy, while the captain of the American men’s ice hockey team was benched two days later for publicly and bitterly criticizing his coach after a 5-3 loss against Romania in the opening round of the men’s ice hockey competition.4
As if that hadn’t been bad enough, the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan Olympic teams had to be sent home after getting into an altercation with each other during the eighth day of the games.5 But these episodes would seem like mere annoyances in comparison to the carnage that was about to unfold just a few miles from the Olympic Village...
Since the late 1970s, the steady and growing influx of Middle Eastern immigrants into western Europe had been a source of never- ending controversy. Anti-immigration activists decried it as putting a strain on social services and national budgets; in some extreme cases they denounced the immigrants as a potential fifth column for Islamic terrorist groups. Pro-immigration forces argued that these so-called fifth columnists were exceptions, and highly conspicuous exceptions to boot; they pointed out that the majority of immigrants from the Middle East became productive citizens of their adopted homelands and gave far more than they took.
As proof for their arguments the pro-immigration lobby cited the captain of the Norwegian men’s speedskating team, an Iraqi refugee’s son named Farouk al-Ramzy. Al-Ramzy, whose parents had fled Baghdad at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, was a national hero to Norwegians thanks to his success in the 3000m and 5000m speedskating classes over a career that had started when he was just fifteen. In his Olympic debut at the 2006 Games in Turin, he’d only missed the medal stand by one-thousandth of a second; four years later he’d captured the bronze in the 3000m event at Vancouver; at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia he had picked up a gold in the men’s 3000m competition and a silver in the 5000m event; and going into the 2018 Games he was pegged by the experts as having a better-than-even chance at double gold. He was also a three-time Norwegian national champion and had won amateur speedskating competitions in fifteen different countries.
His success didn’t come without controversy, however. Some right- wing Norwegians complained al-Ramzy had stolen a spot on the men’s speedskating team that(in their view) should have rightfully gone to a native-born athlete, while Muslim fundamentalists at home and abroad accused al-Ramzy of being too secular. And there were those among his peers in the sport who darkly implied he had gotten a certain measure of pharmaceutical assistance in his climb to the top.
But the "Tromso Torpedo", as one British sports magazine dubbed him, hardly seemed fazed by most of the criticisms being aimed at him. Indeed, in some respects they motivated al-Ramzy to work that much harder to live up to the expectations placed on him by his fans; to refute the spurious drug allegations against him, for instance, he routinely subjected himself to drug tests even more stringent than those officially mandated by the IOC. Off the track al-Ramzy was a major contributor to dozens of charitable organizations around the world and sponsored at least two speedskating clinics in Canada.
Unfortunately, however, fate would proceed to derail al-Ramzy’s career in the worst possible manner...
Other than the Winter Games in Trondheim, the biggest news coming out of Norway that February-- and the event that would ultimately provide the catalyst for the Trondheim riot --was the arrest of two Middle Eastern teenagers suspected of being responsible for a rash of car thefts that had plagued the Trondheim area in the weeks just prior to the games. Leftists of all ethnic stripes regarded the arrests as evidence that Muslim immigrants were being singled out for persecution by the government; by contrast, the prevailing view on the right was that the suspects in the car theft case were a microcosm of everything that was wrong with not having a stricter policy on immigration. The vast majority in the center didn’t very much care about the ethnic or political ramifications of the trial-- they were just glad to see the car thieves put behind bars.
Ten days into the Trondheim Olympics the car theft suspects were formally indicted; Muslim fundamentalists in Norway’s Middle Eastern community reacted by holding a mass rally to protest the indictments. This in turn prompted white supremacists to stage a counter-rally, and both demonstrations threatened to disrupt the Games. Making it clear that such a threat could not be tolerated, Norway’s interior minister ordered riot police dispatched to keep both groups under control and bar either from causing trouble at the Olympic Village.
While the white supremacists and Islamic hard-liners might have been at odds on just about everything else, they were united in their contempt for the police. The National Socialist Movement for Norway, the country’s largest white supremacist organization, had turned out in force that day, and its members jeered when the first wave of riot police arrived in Trondheim. They hurled things at the riot squads: first insults, then rocks, and finally Molotov cocktails. In response, the riot police moved to arrest them-- and right then and there all hell broke loose as the more violent elements of the crowd in both the NSMN and Islamic fundamentalist rallies attacked the police units with whatever weapons they could get their hands on.
Farouk al-Ramzy was doing a workout at the main Olympic skating venues when he first learned of the riot; disregarding the pleas of Olympic security officials and his teammates, al-Ramzy borrowed a bullhorn and went into town with the intention of addressing the rioters. He was hoping to calm down the situation, but his words had the opposite effect-- the rioters turned their wrath off the police and onto him, throwing rocks and bottles in his direction. One NSMN partisan pulled out a handgun and fired three shots at al-Ramzy.
The first two missed the Iraqi-Norwegian speedskater by a mile; the third, however, caught him just above his right ear and he fell to the pavement like a rag doll, the bullhorn still clutched in his hand. At that moment, any hope the police might have had of containing the riot went straight out the window as both factions of protestors, joined by angry bystanders, lashed out at each other in an orgy of mindless violence that rivaled the 2005 riots in Paris. By dawn the next morning al-Ramzy was hospitalized in an irreversible coma and at least a quarter of Trondheim was in flames.
Five police and nine demonstrators were killed during the first twelve hours of the Trondheim riot, as were a half-dozen innocent civilians whose only sin was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the body would climb still higher before the riot was over.
On the second day of the riot, Norway’s prime minister made a nationally televised address to his fellow countrymen appealing for calm in Trondheim. Unfortunately his words fell on deaf ears: even as the cameras were being set up in his office, the same extremists who’d clashed with each other and with the police were getting ready for a new round of mayhem. This time, the rioters’ target was the Olympic Village. The Islamic fundamentalists considered the presence of athletes from alleged "infidel" nations an abomination and wanted to erase it; they especially resented the participation of Israel, which that year was fielding the largest Winter Olympic team in its history.6
On the other side of the bigotry coin, the NSMN and their neo-Nazi brethren loathed the so-called "mud people" in attendance at the Games from non-white countries and the ‘mongrel’ United States; they were intent on killing every non-white individual they could get a hold of. One or both of these factions might have succeeded in breaching the Olympic Village’s walls if not for the 1500-man armed security detail guarding the Village with support from Norwegian army anti-terrorist troops.
From the moment the Trondheim Olympic Organizing Committee had formed, one of the committee’s top priorities had been ensuring the athletes coming to participate in the Games were fully protected from all possible threats to their safety. It was also a major concern of the IOC7, whose members recalled all too well the disasters that had resulted from inadequate security at previous Olympics-- the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, and the attempt by Russian right-wing extremists to set fire to the Japanese Olympic team compound at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, to name just some of the best-known examples.
At approximately 1:00 PM on the second day of the riot, security cameras near the main gates of the Trondheim Olympic Village spotted a gang of about 2000 NSMN thugs marching toward the gates in what was clearly an attempt to batter their way inside. Guards and Norwegian army units, backed by a considerably larger contingent of riot police than the one which had tried unsuccessfully to quell the riot the day before, immediately moved to intercept the would-be gatecrashers. The NSMN toughs jeered at the first warning to disperse; when the warning was issued a second time, they laughed and made obscene gestures at the Village security personnel.
None of them were laughing, however, when the security forces began bombarding them with tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray. A few of the more truculent neo-Nazis wound up on the business end of rubber bullets when they tried to scale the gates; to quell any remaining doubts the NSMN marchers might have had that the Village security team meant business, a few of the guards fired warning shots into the air from their automatic rifles.
That seemed to take the wind out of the NSMN rioters’ sails; it certainly made them less eager to test the Olympic Village’s defenses. Though they remained near the main gates for two and a half hours, chanting fascist slogans and waving swastika banners as "white power" music blared from CD players, they made no further attempts to breach the Village perimeter. By mid-afternoon, most of them had surrendered to police or fled the area; a few simply went home.
Elsewhere along the Village’s perimeter, some of the Islamic radicals who’d been clashing with the police and the NSMN rioters the night before were trying to slip into the village through a service gate at one of the perimeter’s side fences only to meet with about the same level of resistance the neo-Nazis had in their attempt to crash the front gates. In an effort to intimidate Village security personnel the radicals tossed Molotov cocktails at the top of the walls; unfortunately for the bomb-tossers, though, the Village security director had anticipated just such a possibility and had flame-resistant anti-grenade nets deployed throughout the entire Village perimeter. The Molotov cocktail attacks accomplished nothing except to expend a lot of gasoline and give Trondheim police a very good opportunity to memorize the attackers’ faces.
By 6:45 PM that evening the last of the rioters was in police custody and the Olympic Village security detail had stood down from full alert. The Trondheim riot was finally over; the political and social fallout from the riot, however, was just getting started.
The final official death toll from the two-day riot came to eight police officers, twelve demonstrators, and thirteen civilians; two other Trondheim cops would die from their injuries shortly after the 2018 Winter Olympics ended. A post-riot inquiry by the Norwegian interior ministry, while finding no fault with the performance of individual ordinary patrolmen, concluded that the Trondheim police had made a series of tactical errors in their initial response to the riot, the worst of those errors being underestimation of how many riot police would be necessary to contain the uprising.
The Trondheim Olympics closing ceremonies took place in a highly subdued atmosphere; much of the exuberance that usually marks such events was conspicuously absent this time. When Trondheim’s mayor was called on to pass the Olympic ceremonial flag to the mayor of Cordoba, Argentina, the 2022 Winter Games’ host city, his hands trembled to the point where he nearly dropped the banner at the IOC president’s feet. Many TV commentators covering the ceremony, particularly those working for NBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, could be heard to openly voice fears that the 2022 Games might not even be held.
The riot forced Norwegians to take a long, hard look not only at their views on immigration but also at their overall identity as a nation. Before the riot they had thought-- or at least hoped --their country was evolving into one which celebrated cultural diversity, but the riot served up a stark warning that this might not be the case. There was also the nagging question of how citizens of Norway, which during World War II had suffered long years under Nazi occupation, could possibly even consider joining a Nazi-style movement, let alone endorse its views to the point where they might be willing to commit violence against those who didn’t look or think the same way that they did.
Outside Norway, the riot cast doubt on conventional Western concepts of multiculturalism; in other parts of continental Europe, in Britain, and in the United States right-wing commentators viewed the riot as an example of political correctness run amok, while hard-line clerics in the Muslim world cited the events in Trondheim as proof of the West’s corruption and anti-Islamic bigotry. Norway’s neighbor Sweden, fearful that some of the neo-Nazis involved in the riot might escape prison and slip across the Norwegian frontier to wreak the same kind of havoc in Swedish cities, briefly closed its western border.
An ironic aftereffect of the riot was that Scandanavia, a mecca of winter sports for generations, wouldn’t try to host a Winter Olympics again for over a quarter-century. In fact, two Scandanavian cities-- Malmo, Sweden and Viipuri, Finland --withdrew bids to host the 2030 Winter Games when it became clear that the IOC was too fearful of a repeat of the Trondheim disaster to consider accepting either city’s bid.8 At the 2022 Winter Games in Cordoba, athletes and officials alike seemed to be constantly on edge, bracing themselves for the worst from the moment the torch was lit at the opening ceremonies till the second it was extinguished at the closing ceremonies.
The riot also affected Scandanavian countries’ ties to the Summer Olympics. When the Norwegian Olympic team made its entrance during the opening ceremonies for the 2024 Summer Games in Nairobi, much of the crowd greeted them with catcalls, boos, and placards making derogatory comments about the victims of the Trondheim riot; the captain of the Norwegian team was so incensed by this behavior that he threatened to pull the entire team out of the games in protest. In a demonstration of solidarity with their fellow Scandanavians, the Swedish and Danish Olympic teams refused any further participation in the Nairobi Games until the Kenyan government apologized for the abusive treatment that the Norwegians had been subjected to.
Back in Norway, the liberal cabinet which had been running the country at the time the Trondheim riot erupted was turned out of office by a no-confidence vote and a right-center coalition assumed control of the government. For many Norwegian politicians, including the prime minister, the riot would mark the end of their political careers; for many others, however, it would be a career-maker. The current Norwegian prime minister, in fact, first won election to the country’s national parliament by tapping into popular dissatisfaction with the way the previous government had handled immigration and domestic security before as well as during the riot.
Many Middle Easterners in Norway began leaving the country after the riot rather than endure the suspicion and racism of native-born Norwegians; some returned to their former homelands in the Middle East, while others emigrated to Britain, the United States, France, or Australia. One of those who moved to the US was the wife of Farouk al-Ramzy, who arranged to have her comatose husband transferred to Columbia University Hospital in New York shortly after she arrived in the States. He remains in the hospital’s intensive care wing today, a withered and heartrending symbol of the hopes and dreams that were destroyed in the flames of Trondheim.
1The first being the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.
2A conspicuous exception to this was, of course, the Norwegian tourist ministry’s worldwide media blitz urging vacationers to visit Norway that winter.
3Some people suggest the boycott threats had less to do with the fishing boat dispute than with sour grapes over Russia’s 6-1 thrashing by Norway in the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Hockey Championships in Toronto.
4Even before then he’d been in the doghouse; the man coaching the American men’s ice hockey team in Trondheim also happened to be the head coach for the defending Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars at the time and had argued on several occasions with his captain over playing time issues before the American men’s team departed for Norway.
5Though no one has ever been able to determine for sure what started the ruckus, each claims the other team’s captain accused their male athletes of being homosexual.
6Though it was forgotten at the time in the shock over the riot, Israel racked up a quite respectable medal count at the Trondheim Olympics. Among other achievements the country earned its first figure skating medal(bronze in the pairs competition), first speedskating gold medal(women’s 1500 meters), first curling medal(silver following a close-fought match against Britain in the men’s final), and first women’s skiing medal(bronze in Alpine super-G). Indeed, one Israeli Olympian at Trondheim won more medals alone than some countries’ entire Olympic teams did combined.
7International Olympic Committee.
8Sweden and Finland were experiencing their own immigration controversies at the time the Malmo and Viipuri bids were withdrawn; though neither country saw large-scale calamities like the Trondheim riot, both did see their share of small-scale violence, and this heightened the IOC’s already considerable degree of wariness on the matter of awarding the Winter Games to a Scandanavian nation in the aftermath of the riot.