At 7.45 am on Sunday August 24 the streets of the capital were virtually empty. Only a few taxis trawled the deserted roads. But most of the nation was awake—watching the television.
In homes around the country, in sports halls with specially erected screens and in Iceland’s cinemas, the population watched as “our boys”, the men’s handball team, were defeated by France, 28-23, in the gold medal match and last event of the Beijing Olympic Games.
But it wasn’t really a defeat.
This handball team had accomplished what no other Icelandic team had. They were bringing home a silver medal, only the second in the country’s history (the other was awarded to triple-jumper Vilhjálmur Einarsson in 1956). Two bronzes – in 1984 and 2000 – add to make the entire Olympic haul for this island nation.
Iceland has now become the smallest nation ever to win an Olympic medal in a team sport. On a per capita basis (and we in Iceland love our per capita statistics), the country’s one silver is like the US having a 1000-medal haul.
To get that far, Iceland beat Russia, world champions Germany, and Poland to earn a seat in the semi-final match against Spain, a victory which President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson described as the greatest sporting moment in Icelandic history.
The team even captured the attention of the international media, stoking the flames of Iceland’s minority complex. “Iceland is So Hot Right Now” announced SportingNews.com. The New York Times carried a story about the underdog heroes on the cover of their Saturday paper. From the Financial Times to the Sydney Morning Herald, the world lapped up the story of the little team that could.
Three days later, the team returned home to a heroes’ welcome. Following a parade through central Reykjavík they were presented to a cheering throng of up to 40,000 (almost eight percent of the entire population of Iceland), up on stage alongside the rest of the country’s Olympic team, Vilhjálmur the silver medalist from 1956, and those cabinet ministers and senior politicians who wanted extra television coverage. President Grímsson, Thorgerdur Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister for Education, Culture and Sport, and the handball team’s official masseuse were cheering and singing along the loudest.
After almost an hour of the show, the team were whisked away to Presidential residence Bessastadir to be awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Order of the Falcon.
We’re all so proud. Look out London, here we come!
ER – [email protected]