Since the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, Icelandic sportsmen have faced a lack of funds, lack of nationhood and general lack of population. Even so, we have managed four glorious medals: a silver in triple jump at the Melbourne Games in 1956, a bronze in judo at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, bronze in pole vault at the Sydney Games in 2000 and a silver in handball at the 2008 Beijing Games. And, depending on how seriously you take nationality politics, a gold at the 1920 Antwerp Games, in the guise of an ice hockey team from Canada.
Icelanders refuse to walk for Denmark
The early story of Iceland at the Olympics is heavily tied up with independence politics of the time. The first photographs of Icelanders at the 1908 Games are of glíma wrestlers dressed up as Vikings. This was no fancy dress; it was an assertion of independence from the Danish colonisers.
Jóhannes Jósefsson was the first Icelander to compete at the Olympics in 1908. He was determined for Icelanders to compete as a separate nation. A friend of a friend, chair of the British Olympic Association, Sir William Henry Desborough, allowed them to walk in the opening ceremony and showcase glíma as an Icelandic sport.
Denmark’s coach, Fritz Hansen, had other ideas about Iceland taking part. As Jóhannes recounts the opening ceremony in his biography ‘Jóhannes á Borg,’ “All of the sudden a white wall formed in front of us by the gate of the stadium. There stood the Danish athletes, 50 of them…in the middle stood their coach, Fritz, a captain from the army. He said that we would not walk in as we were, because we were Danish subjects and nothing more.” Sir William, however, demanded that the Danish step aside and allowed Iceland to walk.
In addition to taking a team to demonstrate glíma wrestling, Jóhannes competed in Greco-Roman wrestling (under Denmark) and came in fourth place. We would have to wait 48 years for an Icelander to surpass his performance.
In 1912, determined to compete as an independent sporting nation at the Stockholm Olympics, wrestler Sigurjón Pétursson had set up Íþróttasamband Íslands (ÍSÍ), the Sports Association of Iceland (and now the National Olympics Association). Iceland was still a Danish colony, however, and it took a lot of convincing.
Fritz, who was now head of the Danish Olympic Association, was not about to let potential medallist Sigurjón slip through his fingers too easily. The minister of the interior finally agreed to sign a letter declaring that Iceland be allowed to compete as a special sporting nation. The signature was in pencil, however, and the Swedish Olympic Association refused to accept it. This was soon corrected with a telegram and Iceland appeared in the programme below Denmark. A sign was made for the opening ceremony and Icelandic competitors Sigurjón (Greco-Roman wrestling) and Jón Halldórsson (track and field) were to appear as ‘Iceland’ rather than ‘Denmark (Iceland)’ when they competed.
On the morning of the opening ceremony, however, Fritz sent a letter demanding that Iceland walk with the Danish team rather than behind it, holding its own sign. The sign post for ‘Iceland’ was the only one left lying on the ground of the stadium as the Icelandic team refused to walk at the opening ceremony. Although they went on to compete, the Swedes went back on their word with ‘Denmark (Iceland)’ behind their names for two days in a row.
While this insult to Iceland was a bitter pill to swallow, the nation was left with a sweet aftertaste when the Swedish press fell in love with the Icelandic folk sport of glíma. Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet even hailed it as “The most beautiful sport that we have seen showcased at the Stadium.”
A Canadian hockey team of Icelanders wins gold
Despite this early occupation with national identity, ÍSÍ decided to forgo the 1920 Olympics held in Antwerp. In a book by Frímann Helgasson ‘Fram til orustu’ (“To Battle”), Icelandic marathon runner (and later famous photographer) Jón Kaldal bitterly recalled that competing in these games “was the most disappointing point of [his] athletic career,” because ÍSÍ refused to support his application as an Icelander and he was forced to compete with the Danish team.
In 1920, however, we sort of also won our first and only gold medal (so far) through the Canadian Winnipeg Falcons hockey team. All but one of the team members were either born in Iceland or to Icelandic immigrants, and they were coached by one of Iceland’s glíma wrestlers from 1908, Guðmundur Sigurjónsson (who as it happens was also the last man to be convicted for sodomy in Iceland, in 1924). In celebration of this victory, the Icelandic ice hockey team has had a falcon and a maple leaf on its logo since 2002.
Icelanders are special because we ride polar bears
Competing for the first time since achieving independence from the Danes in 1944, the Icelandic national team walked proudly at the opening ceremony of the 1948 London Games (also called the Austerity Games). Finishing twelfth out of his group of 35, Icelandic decathlonist Örn Clausen stirred up media attention when he admitted to the press that he had never done a decathlon and had not known what was involved. A bit of a prankster, Örn set BBC phone lines ablaze when he told viewers: “Icelanders are special because we ride polar bears and use them to pull our wagons.”
An Icelander did not get that much media attention at the Olympics until musician Björk opened the Olympics at Athens 2004. There she unfurled a 10,000 square metre dress that revealed a map of the world billowing over the athletes whilst lip-syncing to a playback of her track, “Oceania.”
Finally, Icelanders win some medals
In November 1956, we became winners. The Games were held in Melbourne, and local press reports quipped that it was so cold that even the Icelanders were shivering. Due to a lack of funds, the smallest team that year consisted of two Icelandic men who had to hitch a ride on the last two seats available on the Swedish and Norwegian aeroplanes flying to the Games. The selection was tough, but it paid off when triple jumper Vilhjálmur Einarsson set an Olympic record of 16.25m. Only minutes later the Brazilian world record holder Ferreira Da Silva beat him by 10cm, but Vilhjálmur came in second place and won Iceland’s first non-Canadian Olympic medal.
Silence fell on the tiny arena hosting a judo match in Los Angeles in 1984 when Iceland’s Bjarni Friðriksson beat the USA’s Leo White on his home turf. The small crowd of Icelanders, who had hardly made a sound amidst the righteous cheers supporting Leo, were overjoyed. This might have been enough, but Bjarni went on to bring home Iceland’s first medal in 28 years, finishing third place in the men’s half-heavyweight judo.
Bjarni put the bronze medal down to his first ever beer. Recalling the moment he knew what he would win in the book ‘Íslendingar á Ólympíuleikum’ Bjarni said, “having got myself a slice of pizza, I was really thirsty and there was nothing but beer on the table. On the first sip I said to myself, there goes the gold, then went the silver. At that point my coach intervened and stopped me from drinking another drop. I knew then that the bronze was mine.”
Vala Flosadóttir was the first Icelandic woman to compete in pole vault at the spectacular Sydney Olympics in 2000. Adding fourteen centimetres to her personal record, and setting new records in Iceland and the Nordic countries, her 4.50 metre height was an unbelievable triumph. In an interview with Morgunblaðið just after the event, she told the newspaper, “I had to ask the Danish competitor whether it was true, what was on the board, or whether I had double vision.”
“Iceland is the biggestest country in the world” declared Dorrit Moussaieff, the presidential first lady, on national radio in 2008. This was minutes after our handball team came in second place at the Beijing Olympics. They had begun well, beating Germany, the world champions at the time. Losing by one point to South Korea, they went on to score a dramatic last minute penalty against the Danish side that brought them to 32-32 draw. Clawing their way to the finals, they were easily defeated by favourites, France. This did nothing to take away from their winning a silver medal in the eyes of the Icelandic press, however, and there was even talk of making a 2024 bid to hold the Olympics in Reykjavík.
We may not be the biggest, but we have certainly got heart. And according to our calculations, the frequency of medal winning is getting exponentially higher. Unfortunately it won’t be thanks to our men’s handball team this year, which lost to Hungary in the semi-finals.
WHAT ON EARTH IS GLÍMA?
Glíma is a uniquely Icelandic form of wrestling that has been demonstrated at the Olympics on a number of occasions. The match sees competitors standing upright gripping each other’s belts, which are worn around the hips and thighs. They tread clockwise in circles around each other until one makes the other touch the ground with any body part that is not the lower arms or lower legs. As Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet described the sport in 1912, “after a cordial handshake, the competitors take a firm grip of each other’s leather belts and start making dance-like moves where the opponents pull each other into the air as if standing in a weightless space.”