Icelanders like nothing better than confirmations of their belief that they are somehow the greatest, the strongest, the most beautiful or the smartest people in the world.
This love affair with being number one started in the 1980s, when an Icelander, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, won the title ‘World’s Strongest Man”’ in 1984, and then in 1985 when Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir—Hófí—became ‘Miss World.’ A second Icelandic woman, Linda Pétursdóttir, won the Miss World pageant in 1988 and Jón Páll went on to win the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ competition three times in the ‘80s. In the 1990s another Icelander, Magnús Ver Magnússon, won the title four more times. While Icelandic musclemen have not managed to reach the top three since the ‘90s, the unparalleled beauty of Icelandic women was again acknowledged in 2005. Having these titles conferred upon Icelanders, I believe, had a permanent effect upon the Icelandic psyche.
The victory of Annie Mist Þórisdóttir last week in the world CrossFit championships was therefore a welcome addition to this tradition of being number one. The media declared that Annie had been recognised as the fittest or toughest woman alive (CrossFit is a extreme endurance and fitness sport), Icelanders rejoiced on Facebook and in blog comments. Clearly the nation needed a reminder that it could produce these kinds of übermensch. Annie, being tall and blond, fit the ticket perfectly.
Shortly after her victory, however, this national choir of celebration was interrupted by the whining shrill voices who did not want to rejoice and celebrate a remarkable achievement, but rather wanted to gripe about taxes and argue politics. According to these malcontents the real story was that Annie would have to pay taxes out of the cash award! Oh the outrage!!
This issue was first raised in a nameless editorial column “Týr,” on the pages of Viðskiptablaðið, a business weekly. Týr speculated that the first person Annie would meet when she returned to Iceland would be the chief of the National Revenue Service, who would force her to fork over 40% on her earnings on the spot.
After Viðskiptablaðið raised the issue, Andríki, the most prominent libertarian blog in Iceland (the name translates literally as “anti-state”) followed up, speculating whether this kind of taxation would not strangle the striving toward excellence: There would be little reason to work hard to reach the top when the taxman was there to collect his due.
ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY?
By now the national conversation about Annie Mist had been perverted into a story about victimisation at the hands of the tax authorities, not about the remarkable achievement of a young woman. It is one thing if Annie Mist herself had started this discussion by complaining publicly about having to pay taxes. But she didn’t. After Viðskiptablaðið used her victory as an excuse to launch into one of their anti-tax tirades Pressan asked her for comment, but all Annie Mist offered were the kind of complaints you get from any taxpayer: Of course she was not thrilled about paying taxes on her winnings, but added that “that’s life” and that she had “not really thought about the money yet.”
Which makes sense. People who strive to achieve, be it sports, the arts or academia, rarely do it with a singular focus on the money. Of course money and greed drives some people, including the types who reigned supreme during the Icelandic “financial miracle,” lawyers, investment bankers and corporate raiders, and high tax rates might dampen the drive of these people to seek “excellence” as they seek ways to construct complex deals and find legal loopholes.
But as it turns out, Annie Mist will not pay a penny to the Icelandic taxman! When real journalists at the Internet news outlet Smugan looked into the matter (rather than use it as an excuse to rail against the government for raising taxes to pay for the financial mess the Convervatives left when they were driven out of power), they found that according to treaties between Iceland and the US, Annie’s winnings will be taxed in the US, not Iceland. So, there was virtually zero reason to complain about how much she would pay in taxes.
But of course that did not change the anti-tax crusaders of Viðskiptablaðið and Andríki from attempting to turn a story about athletic achievement into a story about taxation and a political controversy—all so that they could get a chance to take a shot at their political opponents or rail against taxation. Some people are like this—to them all things are ultimately political issues or somehow a comment upon a political controversy and any news story somehow validates their political ideology and worldview. And they will search for any opportunity to take a shot at their political opponents, proselytise for neoliberal economic policies and pontificate about the evil of taxes.
But not everything is about politics or taxes, and sometimes it is just ok to focus on celebrating achievement rather than search for opportunities to stir up phoney controversies.