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Scenes From Iceland's Handball Triumph

Robert Gunnarsson's "300"-inspired mohawk. (By Lee Jin-man - AP).

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."

Logi Geirsson's Germanic Runes tattoo. (By Mikhail Voskresensky - Reuters).

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.

By Dan Steinberg  |  August 22, 2008; 3:14 PM ET
Categories:  Media , Olympics  
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Next: A Morning Jolt of Icelandic Team Handball


Are there primates in Iceland? (Basides homo sapiens, of course)

Posted by: Ape whaaat? | August 22, 2008 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Got to complement the Icelanders on their command of English. Anyone who's able to seamlessly weave "ape [bleep]" into conversation should definitely consider himself fully fluent in the English language.

Posted by: B in DC | August 22, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Pretty cool that for 3 seconds someone thought you were the president of a country

Posted by: JJ | August 22, 2008 4:16 PM | Report abuse

To come, to participate, to overcome, to taste the top of the world.
Magnificent. big thanks to you few of 14 who have brought our tiny nation to tears of joy.
Sunday might even bring us still higher :)

Posted by: Icelander | August 22, 2008 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Pretty cool that for 3 seconds someone thought you were the president of a country

Posted by: JJ | August 22, 2008 4:16 PM

Even cooler that Iceland has a first lady that will run a scam on Olympics security personnel.

Posted by: Andrew | August 22, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

What a great story! Congratulations to all of Iceland.

Were you the only press-type person on the floor? Anyone know when/if the championship game is on NBC?

Dan, I would think that this would have to rank right up there with your great Winter Olympic moments.

Posted by: ohioblue | August 22, 2008 5:53 PM | Report abuse

This paragraph blew me away, Steinz, but not in a good way:

"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."

First, I had such respect for you getting the first lady of Iceland to dub you President -- she, the Sigourney Weaver to your Kevin Kline from the movie "Dave."

But then you blew all that respect by asking the lamest question a reporter covering the Olympics can ask -- "what are your emotions right now?"


Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 5:57 PM | Report abuse

This is actually your best blog yet, with the correct codicil from 'Anonymous,' and your 'what are your emotions right now' question.

Fun stuff, tho.

Posted by: Stephen | August 22, 2008 6:28 PM | Report abuse

No, no primates. Only climates.

Posted by: HjorvarPez | August 22, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to you Dan!!! Thank you for your blog entry and making it possible for us Icelanders living in the U.S. to follow-up and share in the joy of this remarkable accomplishment of our handball team. Your entry was clever, remarkably broad in such few words, and truthfully illustrative of the mystique of our Icelandic mindset. If you haven’t visited our country, I hope you will !!! Áfram Ísland, berjumst til síðustu mínútu, gullið er okkar!!!

Posted by: Tryggvi Guðmundur - Atlanta | August 22, 2008 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Wonderfully joyful post, Dan. BTW, there is a special place in my heart for Iceland and Icelanders due specifically to my introduction to them from your father via Njal's Saga. These are great people, and I hope someday to visit them. In the meantime, I will continue to read about them, and I love that you have given me a text. Nice, truly nice.

Posted by: Bobbie | August 22, 2008 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations, team, Icelanders, you beautiful specimens of red-bearded Vikings.
I too am overjoyed that you won this contest.

USA citizen

Posted by: nameispointless | August 22, 2008 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Hey, I was right behind you, and she didn't give me a title! At least chief of staff or something.

Posted by: Beau Dure | August 22, 2008 11:59 PM | Report abuse

Funny entry. :D

And do you know that you were mentioned on our news here? Sure, no name but they told of a reporter that our first lady dragged onto the floor. XD And showed a screencap of your blog. lol.

Dorrit is pretty awesome. :) We hope they win tomorrow, that would be awesome.

Posted by: Fanney | August 23, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

You really have made the Icelanders love your work through the blogs. I am sure it would be great fun for you to visit the country and suggest that our First Lady invites you to the national celebration when the team arrives back;-)

Posted by: Lára | August 23, 2008 7:43 PM | Report abuse

If there will ever be a day when the whole Icelandic nation will be getting up at 7 a.m. local time on a Sunday to watch TV, tomorrow is it. Everyone is rooting for our boys and the atmosphere is unbelievable. That is the Icelandic spirit, one for all and all for one. Even people who have never watched a handball game in their life are getting up to watch.
Go boys......we love ya!

Icelandic female in Reykjavik

Posted by: Northern Lights | August 23, 2008 8:03 PM | Report abuse

thanks for reading my blog - and using the titel - sfatr

Posted by: nancy | August 23, 2008 11:29 PM | Report abuse

thanks for reading my blog - and using the title - sfatr

Posted by: nancy | August 23, 2008 11:29 PM | Report abuse

I would say that you are a really good penn, meaning you are a good writer, hope you will come here to iceland one day, good writer like you i will get you to write my story..well i need to think of one first... I am Icelandic and i cant subscribe how proud i am of the Icelandic team. We are 300.000 who live on this small island, i´ts like a one big family, if one person does something then everybody knows. It´s hard sometimes and you wish that you could just get away. But who dont think like that in every country. A moment like this Iceland is coming home with the silver make me think again how much we do support each other even though we get into each other nerves sometimes because like i sad above we are like a one big family. This was amazing time here in iceland and to see how every body was supporting them. Cinemas were open 7 in the morning to watch live. And after hard partying on our famous culture night that we have every year here in Iceland people GOT UP!! to support the boys. I love my boys and i cant wait to see them home again with there silver.

The game against Poland was really good i really felt for the polish team i got tears in my eye´s after they lost against iceland. But happy in the same time you know ICELAND WON!

We are winners even we got the silver - silver shines brighter then the gold ;) -

Takk kærlega fyrir mig.

Posted by: Girl from Iceland. | August 24, 2008 2:37 PM | Report abuse

iceland is badass. my only real knowledge of the place comes from my 'death revenge and madness in icelandic literature and culture' class i took freshman year of college... but i f-cking love that icelanders are posting on the sports bog! nick young needs to do an icelandic adventure tour...

Posted by: displaced mets fan in dc | August 24, 2008 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Lísa | August 24, 2008 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Copy and paste this link funn story:)

Posted by: Lísa | August 24, 2008 7:53 PM | Report abuse

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