Scenes From Iceland's Handball Triumph
I was walking toward the mixed zone this evening when I ran into the first lady of Iceland. Dorrit Moussaieff asked me how she could get onto the playing surface, so that she could help celebrate her tiny country's stunning trip into the men's handball finals. I pointed her in the right direction, and told her I worked for The Washington Post. She told me she was friends with Katharine Graham. Then she tried to bring me onto the floor, where 14 large Icelandic men were glorying in the craziest athletic accomplishment in their country's history -- a 36-30 win over Spain in the Olympic semifinals.
"I don't think I can go this way," I said.
"Yes you can; if you're with me you can," she said, approaching the arena guard. "I'm the wife of the President; that's the President," she said, nodding at me while dragging me past the guard.
And so I passed through the tunnel and onto the floor, nominally the president of Iceland, allowing for a pretty direct look at Nordic joy. A few minutes later, I asked the players to describe this happiness, this bliss that they had brought to their 300,000 fellow citizens, who have never tasted Olympic gold.
"Ah, people are going ape [bleep] now man," Sigfus Sigurdsson said. "I think everything was closed while the game was on, so I think people are just going ape [bleep], they're going wild."
And while the post-game mood might not have been wild, it was certainly unique. There was Ingimundur Ingimundarson, identifying Iceland's secret to handball success. "Vikings are crazy," he said. "We're crazy. We believe so much in ourselves. I think that's the secret."
There was Robert Gunnarsson, explaining why a teammate had given him a mohawk less than three hours before the semifinal began. "I just wanted to get into the real atmosphere and play like a soldier," he said. " '300' -- It's a crazy film."
There was sublime scorer Logi Geirsson, describing his back tattoo: "I Go My Own Way," except written in Germanic Runes. "The oldest letters in the world," he said.
There was Sigurdsson, a 6-foot-6, 251-pound ice block, comparing this moment to Iceland's other athletic success stories. "Now we are kicking everybody's [butt]; everybody, the athletes, the swimmers, everybody," he said. "As a team sport, nobody's even close to us."
And, of course, there was Olafur Stefansson, the existentialist captain. He had long visualized this moment as a sort of experiment in manifestation, and, when the moment actually happened, he collapsed on the floor, weeping.
"It's not so much about the medal; it's about having learned something, and getting people to believe in things," he said. "That if you really, REALLY focus on them, if you really visualize them, you really draw [them] into your life, that they come true. It's coming true in my life. I can't say anything more. It has worked for my subjective reality and 15, 16 other subjective realities, and maybe it can do it for other [people] as well."
Iceland's President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, was less metaphysical but equally in rapture. The day before, he had lunched with the handballers, who told him of the massive expectations lodged in their hearts. From home came stories of cinemas packed with fans and handball games drawing 100 shares on television. Grimsson said he didn't have to declare a national holiday, because the spontaneous joy was its own declaration.
"I think everybody in Iceland who had the capability, health-wise," he said, "to either listen to it on radio or watch it on television..."
"You mean who wasn't dead," the first lady interjected.
"...Would have done so," Grimsson finished. "For a nation like ours, this is not just sport. It's a proof that each and every Icelander can hope to excel internationally, whether it is in science or art or business or sports. It's probably difficult for people from big nations to understand how a victory like the one tonight will have strong influence in every part of society, and will inspire scientists and artists and businesspeople to excel as well. Because for a small nation, this is a message that if you believe in yourself and if you work hard, anything is possible."
Which is why, despite their extended on-court celebration, the Icelanders soon tried to reign in the skittering magic elves of enthusiasm. Bjorgvin Pall Gustavsson, the brilliant goalkeeper, said he was allowing himself 90 minutes of happiness, and then it was back to work. Sigurdsson said he was advising teammates to shower, eat and take a little walk to wind down. And Stefansson, the French deconstructionist-quoting Phil Jackson-citing captain, spoke about the merits of humility and consistency.
"The best example of that: The next 48 hours will only have value if we will focus on the gold medal," he said. "Life is only so long. I'm 35. Anything can happen. Nothing is certain. So use what you have. Use the time you have to the best, make the best out of it, cultivate your garden, blah blah blah."
He laughed. Then he told us we should read the works of Charles Bukowski.
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