Iceland is a country that way over performs its small stature on sporting fields all over the globe. The Icelandic sporting tradition has come a long way since the days of glíma, the traditional folk wrestling that is our national sport. Nowadays, Iceland’s sporting achievements are in a number of sporting fields, yet we have still to make a ripple in the Winter Olympics. We have athletes that have competed in the NBA, LPGA and the Champions League yet there are no professional sports leagues. We have a couple of Olympics medals to show for our sporting efforts as we outperform more populous nations. But what lies behind the sporting success of such a small country? How can a nation with a population similar to Coventry in England and Riverside, California, perform so well on the sporting stage?
In years past, Iceland focused on sports which other nations often overlooked, such as team handball, which was the main sport in the country for decades. The men’s handball team even managed to get a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a huge achievement for a relative sporting minnow, as well as a bronze medal in the European Championship in 2010. Times have changed though, as Icelanders have in increasing numbers turned their attention to the so-called ‘big’ sports, such as football and basketball. The Icelandic men’s national team qualified for the second Eurobasket in a row in 2017, the finals for European basketball nations. The focus has recently been on our football teams as the men’s team is the highest ranked Nordic team as this article is written. Iceland is the least populous nation to reach both the men’s and women’s EURO finals. The women have made it to the EUROs three times in a row while the men qualified for the championship for the first time in 2016. The men’s team now aims to claim another record by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With each additional success, the athletes in the country have more belief that anything is possible.
One of the reasons for these recent sporting achievements is one of the most successful social programs ever in Iceland. In 1998, substance abuse amongst adolescents in Iceland was one of the highest in Europe, and seven years later a complete turnaround had taken place as Iceland was among the lowest countries in this metric. Financial support for families ensured that their children could play organized sports and incentives were put in place to encourage healthy lifestyle activities. It worked astoundingly well, as the percentage of 15-16-year olds who had gotten drunk within a month before answering the questionnaire dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The smoking percentage rates also dropped as they went from 23% to 3% as well as cannabis usage rates dropping from 17% to 7%. The rates for adolescents who actively participated in sports increased from 23% to 42% in the time span. All those children are now the ones who are spearheading Iceland’s sporting success.
Iceland has dominated the Games of the Small States of Europe since they were founded in 1985 as the nation leads the gold medal count. The main rival is Cyprus, who have a population more than three times as large as Iceland. Iceland is a country which has also performed well in the Paralympics as Icelandic athletes have dominated the swimming lanes. Kristín Rós Hákonardóttir set 60 world records and 9 Olympic records in her 22-year long career in which she won three Olympic gold medals. A new Icelandic swimming legend was born in 2012 as Jón Margeir Sverrison won a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. The Olympic medal count for Iceland is decent as well, as we have more medals in the Summer Olympics than Saudi Arabia (33 million) and Iraq (38 million). The medal count, four in total, is also the same of nations such as Vietnam (92 million), Peru (31 million), and Ghana (27 million). Although we cannot exactly compare the infrastructure of Iceland to these countries, it is interesting to take a look at what is happening in the country, in sporting terms.
Icelandic athletes are now starting to gain success in more niche sports as well. Currently, Icelandic women dominate in Crossfit, as they have won a number of medals in recent years. Annie Thorisdottir was, in fact, world champion for two years running in 2011 and 2012. The Icelandic women’s gymnastics team even became European Champions in both senior and junior versions in 2010 and 2012. Gunnar Nelson, an MMA fighter, has also been attracting some interest due to his fighting prowess. There are a number of factors at play as Iceland is a nation where people delve into their fields of interest. Commute times are, in general, not a factor and the long winters are an ample breeding ground for devoting time to a sport. It is also a blend of resources and scale, as our athletes get individual attention due the fact that coaches are not overwhelmed by the sheer number of athletes. Alongside this, the infrastructure that they need to improve body and mind is often world-class. At the same time there is an individual focus, the team sports foster a real sense of unity and teamwork as the athletes compete alongside each other year after year. There are also ample opportunities for exercise in Iceland as there is a great health infrastructure in the country. Every small town has its own sports hall where athletes can train sports in any weather. A multitude of running, hiking and cycling trails can also be found all over the country.
It can also be said with some certainty that Icelanders are workaholics, as the unemployment rate in the country stands at 1% as of July 2017. This is one of the main reasons for why Icelandic athletes are considered hot commodities in a multitude of team sports. The best basketball, handball, and football players that Iceland offers have been plucked by the largest leagues in Europe for the last couple of decades. The stereotypical Icelandic athlete is a grafter who puts his head down and does not complain. Becoming a professional abroad has been the dream of these athletes, who have had to work hard to achieve their dream. Almost all athletes that are situated in Iceland are only part-time, so they have to maintain a second career to be able to make a decent living. The professional athletes who have come from Iceland have given everything to reach the pinnacle of their craft.
In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed a light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.