From Iceland — So What's This Icelandic Handball Team I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Icelandic Handball Team I Keep Hearing About?

Published August 14, 2012

So What’s This Icelandic Handball Team I Keep Hearing About?

Icelanders as a nation have never had very many great athletes, just as one would expect of a country of some three hundred thousand people. Sure, there have been a few Olympic medals, but never a gold. In the 2008 Olympics, Icelanders won one of their two silvers when the national handball team lost to France in the final.
For a nation the size of Iceland, winning an Olympic silver must be pretty nice.
Pretty nice?!? The whole of Iceland could be divided into three groups depending on how excited they were: Those who orgasmed, those who had strokes, and those who got strorgasms. After the team returned from Beijing they received a welcome befitting a Roman general who had just conquered Gaul. A special plane was chartered to fly them home, which buzzed Reykjavík like the city was Cary Grant in ‘North By Northwest.’ After they landed there was a parade in their honour that was almost as big as the Gay Pride parade, which is attended by a third of the nation.
 So you Icelanders love handball almost as much you love gay people?
Yes, but even though we have a gay prime minister, we have yet to have a handball-playing prime minister. Some glass ceilings are yet to be broken. Still, the parade was even bigger than an Independence Day parade, so we do love handball more than we love freedom. To add to the sentimental value of that Olympic silver, five weeks after securing the medal, the bank Glitnir collapsed, which was the whistle that signalled the beginning of the Icelandic financial collapse. That silver medal was, for some people, the last time anything good happened to Icelanders.
 The handballers must be 
national heroes.
Yes and no. Yes in that they are, and no in that the esteem some are held in goes beyond mere hero worship. Ólafur Stefánsson especially, who at 39 is still one of the best players in the world, is revered like a ball-tossing saint. Jocks love him because he is the best jock Iceland has ever had, intellectuals love him because he reads Foucault, and geeks love him because he plays role-playing games with his kids. That said, as far as the team goes, sport-love is born of success, so to keep the good vibe going, more success must follow.
The pressure on the handball team must be intense.
Icelanders tend to have fairly realistic expectations of their Olympic athletes. But optimism started to swell in Icelandic hearts as the handball team laid low team after team in these Games, including the French, who always beat Iceland because they are always better, and Sweden, who have had a psychological grip on the Icelandic team for so long that it was tempting to assume that they included handball prowess in the same deal with the devil that gave them ABBA. Having triumphed against those two formerly unbeatable adversaries, Icelanders had started to entertain the thought that anything is possible.
 Did everyone get this excited?
In every society there is a sizeable group that cares little for sports, but with the exception of those people, most everyone else did indeed get very excited. If the handball team ever gets another Olympic medal, the players will be hailed as conquering heroes and will probably get another triumphal parade in Reykjavík. And if the team wins the gold, parliament will probably kick Christianity out as the official state religion and switch to handball. Jesus will not be let back unless he can show that he is at least as good at handball as he is at getting himself nailed to two planks of wood.
Did the handball team win it all?
No. They got beat by Hungary in the quarterfinals in a tense, close game that went twice into extra-time. This team will not earn their triumphal parade this time around. They will get the more modest, appreciative welcome. They did as well as could be expected, and went down fighting. The Gay Pride parade will not have competition this year for biggest parade in Iceland.
So if they ever win the Olympic title, they might get as big a parade as gay people?
If they win a gold they might just get the bigger parade, though really that will still depend on the weather. Icelanders are like cats: we like fish, gay people and watching small balls fly around a room, but not so much being out in the rain if not necessary. But given that the Olympics end around the same time as Icelanders celebrate Gay Pride, maybe the two could be combined into one super-parade. Icelanders would be drawn to it like cats to an especially smelly fish. Or, indeed, like Icelanders to an especially smelly fish.

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