When Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was doorstepped by international reporters in London last week, he must have struggled to hide a wide smile of relief. For the first time in years, they didn’t want to ask about the crash or the banks; for once, the word “Iceland” was printed without “collapse” or “bankrupt” next to it.
It was TIME magazine that gleefully relayed the President’s fist-pumping words as the country’s handball team launched their quest to build upon the silver they brought home from Beijing in 2008.
“Handball, for us, has become not just a sport, but the core of the national spirit,” he said. “Can anyone honestly say the same about any single US Olympic team? I’m here not just as a great fan... but to also pay homage to what they’ve done.” London 2012 marked Iceland’s first Olympic Games since the global embarrassment of the crash. Four years ago, when the world toasted the country’s fourth medal in Olympics history, little did the squad know that within a matter of months their nation’s name would be muck, that the British government would be employing the same legislation against Icelandic assets as it uses against terrorists.
Before 2008, Iceland had won a triple jump silver in Melbourne (1956), a judo bronze in Los Angeles (1984), and a women’s pole vault bronze back in Australia in Sydney (2000). In Beijing, Iceland’s athletes reached a respectable 70th place on the medals table thanks to that handball display—no mean feat for one of the very smallest countries to compete.
BUMS GO TO ICELAND (SINCE BANKRUPTCY)
Yet in 2012 the country occupies an entirely different position in the global zeitgeist. London’s conservative broadsheet The Telegraph summarised the history of every participant nation in six words, deploying all the characteristic pith and panache of the British press. Their commentary on this volcanic, black-sanded corner of the Atlantic? “Bums go to Iceland (since bankruptcy).”
And so it was not only that elusive first gold of which the twenty-eight athletes representing Iceland were doubtless dreaming as they flew to Britain from Keflavík; it was also to regain a nation’s pride.
This Icelandic cohort was greeted by international pressmen as “the most important team at the Olympics.” In London, the refrain usually reserved for the build-up to a great sporting fixture is “England Expects”: a reminder of the signal sent by Admiral Nelson from HMS Victory ahead of the Battle of Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” In Reykjavík last week, Ólafur had already sent his signal: “Iceland Insists”.
“We have no army in Iceland, so it’s with handball we fight for the recognition,” Iceland’s handball coach Guðmundur Þ. Guðmundsson said. Fifty-two this year and a former player himself, Guðmundur coaches Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the German top division—and led Iceland to its 2008 silver as well as to a bronze medal at the 2010 European handball championship in Austria.
His fifteen-man team is well-travelled. Only two members still play in Iceland: 32-year old left-back Ingimundur Ingimundarson competes at Laugardalsvöllur for Fram Reykjavík, whilst young new recruit Ólafur Ragnarsson turns out in the white-and-red home strip of Handknattleiksfélag Kópavogs. Eight on the team play in the German league, whilst four defensive players are teammates for AG in Copenhagen; reserve keeper Hreiðar Guðmundsson meanwhile plays in Norway.
For 39-year-old Ólafur Stefánsson, Icelandic handball captain and four-time Sports Personality of the Year, this was to be the culmination of a great career that spans more than two whole decades. The six-foot-five right-back is one of the best handballers in the world, holding the record for the highest number of goals scored for a national team. Four years ago, Ólafur was bestowed with the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Falcon; expectations ahead of 2012 were evidently to be raised dramatically. One sports journo wrote about his broad range of interests and passions, as well as his stand-out sporting record, and named him “the coolest guy at the Olympics.”
THE MOST IMPORTANT TEAM
Holding a nation’s hopes, once again, were the famous fifteen. For the uninitiated, handball is a quick-fire sport, not one for the faint-hearted. Seven-man teams play on indoor courts of 40 metres by 20, shunting the ball by hand between their teammates and dispatching it into the opposition goal. In a single 60-minute match, you can expect to see as many as fifty goals scored. The characteristic Viking stature does wonders for the Icelandic sport, as height is an obvious factor for determining success: women players average at five-foot-eleven, whilst men are often six-three and above.
Modern team handball grew at the end of the nineteenth century in northern Europe, the rules of today’s game set out in German in 1917. The International Handball Federation listed 166 member federations in July 2009, with approximately 19 million players in the sport worldwide.
London’s Copper Box has become the host for each of Iceland’s handball games in the group stage. The team has already stormed to victories against Argentina, Tunisia, Sweden, and France—securing their place in the quarterfinals even before coming up against a hopeless Great Britain side.
Iceland’s men in red played boldly in its opening group matches. Their defence has been disappointing, conceding 108 goals in their first four matches, but also scoring a sensational 126—and crucially, holding their nerve when it counted. Slim 33-32 and 30-29 victories against Sweden and France respectively raised hopes that this Iceland team had not only the talent but also the composure to chalk up a remarkable first for a country in need of some newfound world recognition.
It was the French who took home the 2008 gold, defeating Iceland 28–23. They also reign as double defending World Championships and have proven sharp in their matches so far. But when TIME magazine dubs this Icelandic cohort “the most important team at the Olympics,” and with a chorus of support from a President and a people, they know that while the pressure is great, so too are they.
DEFEATED BY HUNGARY
In their group stage, the Hungarians managed only two victories, scoring four points and finishing fourth—scraping into the final stages, to put it generously. It all should have been so simple. But from the off, the Icelanders were on the backfoot: after five minutes, Hungary stormed ahead with a 5-1 lead.
Iceland pushed the invading central Europeans back, transforming the scoreline to 9-8 in their favour after twenty minutes. After that faltering start however, their dominance was never regained. The Hungarians went into the break leading 16-12. The second half saw Iceland pull their socks up—a stern word or two from a decidedly grim-faced coach Guðmundur was surely had.
A penalty throw in the dying seconds of normal time gave Snorri Steinn Gudjonsson the opportunity to seal a famous victory and close an epic match. But his miss handed Hungary the advantage, who countered with an attack and a goal with just three seconds remaining on the clock—taking the game into extra time, where Hungary ultimately prevailed, progressing to the semi-final with a cruel 34-33 win.
So for all the hype and expectation, an unexpected defeat brought Iceland’s hopes of Olympic glory to a halt—but only for four more years.
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The famous fifteen were not alone arriving in London this summer. For Jakob Sveinsson, 2012 was to be his fourth Olympics, having taken part at every turn since Sydney. He began swimming for S.C. Ægir before he even reached double digits, and in 2000 recorded Iceland’s highest-ever result in Olympic swimming, finishing in 25th place, setting new national records in all three breaststroke events nine years later in the World Championships.
London 2012 promised to be a platform for both established Icelandic greats and new, up-and-coming starlets. 22-year old Sarah Blake Bateman for example set out to take part in her first Games. Born and raised in the States, she takes her citizenship from her Icelandic mother.
Icelandic women’s javelin throw record holder Ásdís Hjálmsdóttir (pictured above) returned to the fray after representing the country in qualifying for the 2008 finals. After failing to progress, back home in May 2009 she scored her personal best throw of 61.37 metres, before going on to finish 10th in the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona. In the qualifying round for the women’s javelin final this week, Ásdís reset her own record, with a throw that added nearly a metre and a half to her previous best, scoring a remarkable 62.77 metres.
None of Iceland’s swimmers progressed from their heats to the semifinals. Sport shooter Ásgeir Sigurgeirsson finished a worthy 14th in the qualifying round for the men’s 10 metre air pistol, but failed to make it through to the final.
Þormóður Árni Jónsson fell short against Brazilian Silva in the first round of the men’s +100kg judo event.
Ragna Ingólfsdóttir enjoyed a victory against Lithuanian opposition in her opening women’s singles badminton match, but then lost to Dutch player Yao Jie.