Former football referee Svein-Erik Edvartsen, pictured here with Lionel Messi, has swapped football for weightlifting ©NWF

A former FIFA referee who handled matches involving the world’s biggest football stars has already made his mark in a new career in weightlifting.

Lionel Messi and Harry Kane are in the past now for Svein-Erik Edvartsen, who was also a senior ice hockey referee, salesman and sport administrator, as he has switched his focus to Solfrid Koanda, Ine Andersson and their team-mates.

Edvartsen has been taken on by the Norway Weightlifting Federation (NWF) to help bring new athletes and a new audience to the sport.

He has made a great start in the latter respect - with a lot of help from Norway’s world champion Koanda - by attracting more than 47,000 viewers to packaged highlights videos of Norway’s National Championships in March. The audience last year was 676.

The livestream viewer numbers have nearly halved since 2018 but Edvartsen’s experience told him that highlight videos released at 8pm would be a winner. He was right, and the athletes were as impressed as the viewers.

The 87 kilograms world champion Koanda, described by Edvartsen as "a fantastic role model, and inspiration for young lifters" boosted the viewing numbers when 17,000 clicked on her performance.

"Svein-Erik really knows what he’s doing, he is a sports business professional," said NWF President Stian Grimseth.

"We have plenty of people who know all there is to know about weightlifting but until he joined us we had nobody who knows anything about marketing and promotion.

"It will help us that he sees the sport from a new perspective, which is what weightlifting really needs, and we trust in him to help us make it more popular."

Edvartsen pictured with Norway Weightlifting Federation President Stian Grimseth at the European Championships in Yerevan ©NWF
Edvartsen pictured with Norway Weightlifting Federation President Stian Grimseth at the European Championships in Yerevan ©NWF

General secretary Edvartsen is working on the NWF’s five-year target of doubling the number of registered weightlifters in Norway, from a 2021 mark of 3,432 across all ages.

He has started by overhauling the federation’s output in all forms of media, and is working on one of the biggest tasks Norway has ever faced - hosting the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in 2025 in Førde, an out-of-the-way coastal town with a population of only 13,000.

A new monthly newsletter keeps everybody within Norwegian weightlifting updated on developments, there are more news reports on the NWF website, about three a week, and the sport now has a regular presence in Norway’s biggest newspapers thanks to Edvartsen’s contacts in the media world.

Local newspapers and websites have more coverage because they are fed more material.

To promote the World Championships and boost support from the locals in Førde, whose town will be invaded by hundreds of weightlifters, a special “kickoff” event was held in the coastal town in mid-April, and a promotional video has already been released.

Førde hosted the European Championships in 2016 and is hoping its sport hall will be upgraded to "national arena" status for weightlifting.

Norway’s Government is helping a number of sports to host continental or world championships “to contribute to sports diversity”.

Triathlon, shooting, sailing, functional fitness, sitting volleyball and wheelchair rugby are all getting help with events, as well as weightlifting.

"We give a helping hand to small sports that have few sponsors and limited opportunities for commercial income, so that these too can show off the top level of their sport to a Norwegian and international audience," said Norway’s Minister for Culture and Equality Anette Trettebergstuen, who attended the event in Førde.

Solfrid Koanda has been hailed as a fantastic role model for Norwegian weightlifting ©NWF
Solfrid Koanda has been hailed as a fantastic role model for Norwegian weightlifting ©NWF

Because the town is so small it does not have the hotels to cope with a World Championships, so the plan is to bring a cruise ship to Førde harbour for accommodation.

A separate company has been formed to oversee the 2025 World Championships. Norway’s federation owns 40 per cent of it and the rest is split equally between three clubs.

This will ensure that promoting weightlifting and recruiting new members will be more of a priority than it might have been under a different organisation.

Edvartsen had never been to a weightlifting competition until he flew to Yerevan, Armenia the day after the event in Førde to be part of Norway’s team at the European Championships.

There were far bigger crowds in Armenia, a country with a strong weightlifting history, than international competitions usually attract but they were some distance from the action, which will not be the case in Førde’s smaller arena.

"Of course we will bear safety in mind but we want the spectators to be as close as they can to the athletes," said Edvartsen.

There were surprises for a man who would control 22 footballers on the pitch with the help of two assistant referees, a fourth official and, for big games a video assistant referee team of four.

"At some of the smaller weightlifting sessions there would be six athletes and eight referees, including jury, with many more officials in other roles such as timekeeper," he said.

"I have never seen anything like that before, so many officials."

Another difference was what the referees wear: in football even the VAR specialists and their technology assistants wear tracksuits, as do the referees on arrival at the stadium since the famous Italian referees’ leader Pierluigi Collina dispensed with formal FIFA blazers many years ago.

Edvartsen will find many more differences between his past sporting world and his new one but he knows well enough, as a newcomer, to be inquisitive rather than critical.

One concern he has already expressed, however, is a growing trend among teenagers of employing a personal trainer, something that can happen only in the world’s wealthier countries. Norway is on the podium in Europe in that respect.

"This is very dangerous for us," he said. "In the past it was always older people who wanted to lose weight who had a personal coach, but now there are many boys and girls aged 13-17 paying personal trainers, and not just in weightlifting.

"When it happens our clubs, our system, has lost a member."

After ending his refereeing career in 2017, when he was in charge of a World Cup qualifier in Bosnia, Edvartsen worked as a referee analyst for a betting company.

As well as those roles, Edvartsen has also been chief executive of Norway’s ice hockey league, a sales director, chief executive of several clubs on short-term "clean-up" missions, and head of football and social responsibility at the Norway FA.

He applied for the weightlifting role, which he started on January 1, because "I missed working inside the sports business".

His years working at Ulleval Stadium, where 55 sports federations are based, gave him a solid network of contacts and a wide knowledge base, because "the doors were always open to seek advice from any one of them".

Edvartsen, walking out in front of England footballer Harry Kane prior to a European game ©EWF
Edvartsen, walking out in front of England footballer Harry Kane prior to a European game ©EWF

"Weightlifting a very small federation compared with football, 2.5 employees against 200, but they will help if they can.

"Every month all 55 general secretaries have a seminar, organised by our National Olympic Committee. It’s very collaborative."

Building up a pool of sponsors is another project for Edvartsen, whose experience in other sports is that "logos aren’t the thing so much now".

He said: "Companies want to know ‘what can I get out of this’ when they sign a sponsorship deal. Business to business relationships are very important now".

Sponsors still want role models from sport to promote their products and Norwegian weightlifting has several of those besides Koanda, Edvartsen said.

He cites the example of Rebekka Tao Jacobsen, who took six young girls to Norway’s youth championships in Tysvaer a few days after she returned home from Armenia.

"Ine Anderson is involved in our junior national team and Rebekka is involved in our youth national team. This is something we are very happy about," Edvartsen said.

"It’s very important that the athletes behave like role models. They can help us to reach our target of attracting new youngsters into weightlifting."