Icelandic Handball: Magic Elves, Cured Shark and Existentialism
When I went to the Icelandic men's handball training today, in advance of the team's epic semifinal against Spain Friday night, I intended to ask about three things.
1) The magic Elves. I heard magic Elves were big in Iceland. "Ahhh, yah yah, yah yah," Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson said. "Some people say they live inside the mountains. Some people believe it, some people don't. I mean, I don't care. But if we win a medal, I'm pretty sure they will celebrate with us."
2) The seafood-related alcohol beverage. "When we eat the shark we drink this Brennivin," Sigfus Sigurdsson said, referring to the Icelandic caraway-flavored schnapps that is sometimes called "Black Death."
"You put it in the freezer for a few weeks so the liquid becomes real thick," he continued, "and then the way you work the shark you can't describe it, but it smells awful."
But it tastes good, right? "No," Gudjon Sigurdsson said with a laugh. "But you have to do it. That's just the way it is."
3) The interest back home. The nation's 13 other Olympians are done, without having won a medal, but the handball team was the greatest show in Iceland anyhow. Put it this way: I met Hrafnkell Kristjansson, the sports director for RUV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. He told me that the handball team's preliminary game against Denmark drew nearly 60 percent of the country's 100,000 televisions, and that the game attracted a share of about 100.
Meaning every TV set that was turned on in the country was tuned to handball.
But in truth, I should have been asking not about those trifles, but about captain Olafur Stefansson, who, all joking aside, may be the most interesting athlete I've ever superficially interviewed for 15 minutes.
He divides his life into three worlds. There is handball, including a professional career in the Spanish league and his status as one of Iceland's most popular athletes. There is his family life, with "your kids and your wife and you have to read them bed time stories and stuff like that," he said. And then, he said, "there is third sphere, which is like metaphysical things."
So yeah, the captain of the Icelandic men's handball team has a degree in humanities, once considered entering a Buddhist monastery, has read many of the French 20th century deconstructionists and deep thinkers (such as Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze), refers to himself as an existentialist ("it gives you anguish, yes; basically existentialism is to say it doesn't matter whether God lives or he doesn't, you create your own life, and by doing that you make an example for others"), speaks of quantum physics, has read Karen Armstrong's works on mythology, and chose for his Olympic reading "Man Without Qualities," the three-part novel by the Austrian author and essayist Robert Musil.
He's also blogged about changing the Icelandic education system, and the Icelandic journalists I met fully expect Stefansson to do something extraordinary with his post-handball life. This all might sort of read amusing, but it's not a joke; "you always get the feeling that's he's thinking on another level, a different level," Kristjansson said.
Stefansson--or "Olie," as he's known--doesn't make a show of mixing his academic pursuits with handball, but they of course intersect.
"It's been a really great tournament; I've been having this medal in my head for a very long time," he told me. "Actually it's an experiment for me, whether thoughts and feelings really can manifest....It's important to visualize. I think nothing can happen unless you have visualized it at some time. It doesn't come by chance."
And magic elves?
"It's not so much a matter of 'believing' in the regular sense of the word, it's more of enjoying the possibility of it actually existing," he said. "And it doesn't matter whether somebody judges you or not for having that possibility in your mind, because it's a funny possibility and it enlightens your life and makes it more colorful."
So I asked him whether he has that possibility in his mind. "Why not?" he said.
Friday Update: Iceland beat Spain, 36-30, in the semis and will play France in the gold medal match. From the AP:
Iceland tied the highest point total of the games in its win over Spain. Iceland led 27-24 in the second half, then went on a 6-2 surge that included three goals by Logi Geirsson. Geirsson and Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson each scored seven goals, while Albert Rocas led Spain, also with seven.
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