While many right now are cheering on Iceland’s Olympians competing in Beijing, there still remains great national pride and honour in remembering that unforgettable moment in time when the country won its very first medal.
While Iceland’s Olympic history goes back to 1921, when their Olympic committee was first started and becoming officially recognised by the IOC in 1935, it wasn’t until 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics that an Olympic dream was finally realised.
Vilhjálmur Einarsson – known throughout the country today as “Silver Man” – stunned the world when at Melbourne he sprang a Herculean leap, bounding 16.26 meters in the men’s triple jump. This miraculous achievement set a world record briefly until Adhemar da Silva eclipsed it shortly after.
Einarsson says that the Silver medal win came as a huge shock for him AND the country. “I remember that before the ’56 Olympics started, a famous journalist wrote that Iceland shouldn’t send anyone to the Olympics, as there was no point to it because there had been many previous disappointments. ‘Why waste all that money sending an Icelander halfway across the world?’” he says. “It was quite a big surprise in Iceland for me to win a medal.”
At the time, Einarsson was two years into college at Dartmouth University and enthusiastically participated in the school’s track and field team. Through this experience, he got into excellent athletic form, ready to take on the world. Einarsson recalls that in the run up to the Melbourne Games during the qualifiers in Sweden, he broke the Scandinavian record for the triple jump, and then continuously got better and better. “I improved my personal best by a meter and then another meter,” he says. “This was a very big improvement in such a short period of time!”
After accomplishing a silver finish in Melbourne, Einarsson continued his Olympic ambitions to the next games set in Rome in 1960. He remembers the buzz at the time was high and the pressure was on him to go for the gold. However, a heat wave struck the city during his competition and a Russian triple-jumper strategically delayed his jump by 10 to 15 minutes, intentionally upping Einarsson’s stress level before he was to take his turn. As a result, he suffered the agony of fifth place. “I remember the whole stadium booing the Russian, it’s one of my strongest memories of the games,” he says.