Iceland handball heroes on fire

Aug. 22, 2008, 9:34 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was a 12-year-old boy listening at home in Iceland to the radio as his country won its first Olympic silver medal.

On Sunday, the Iceland president and about 300 other countrymen were in the stands as it claimed its second silver, losing the men's handball to France in a hard-fought gold medal match while the rest of the nation was tuning in on TV.

"The first one is still being remembered today, so you can how imagine this one is being received," Grimsson told The Associated Press. "If anyone said one month ago we would play in the final, they would not have been believed. It shows what small nations can achieve."

Back in Iceland, streets were deserted during the match as people watched in homes or in pubs and clubs. Companies allowed employees time off, while at least two cinemas screened the match and threw open their doors for free. Players said that during the team's semifinal appearance the country's stock market stopped business as traders abandoned their computers to tune in.

"I have been waiting for this for 22 years, ever since I started following the exploits of the Icelandic handball team, " said Ragnheidur Hoskuldsdottir, a 30-year-old bookkeeper in Reykjavik. "It was a magical moment. Proud is a word that can't begin to describe how I feel."

It is not hard to see why the team's appearance in the final event of the 2008 Beijing Olympics ranks as its greatest sporting achievement yet.

Aside from the 1956 silver in the triple jump, Iceland has won two other bronzes, the last in 2000. Despite its name, the country of just 300,000 people has never excelled at Winter Games, either.

Iceland's traveling support was outnumbered and out-sung by the French, who chanted football-style throughout the match.

In handball, teams of seven compete on a court or field around the size of a basketball court, scoring points by throwing a small ball into a net after having had passed it among themselves. The game - popular in Germany and other European nations but largely unheard of elsewhere - is often described as a kind of cross between football, basketball and rugby.

The Iceland team - which before Beijing had never won or even come close to a major international title - lost 28-23 to France, which claimed its first gold medal in the sport.

As the buzzer rang, many of the players were in tears, while the French players hugged each other and saluted their supporters.

Pivot Sigfus Sigurdsson lay in the penalty area, his head in his hands for several minutes until his opposite number on the French team, Didier Dinart, came over to console him.

"I was crying my eyes. We went into the game to win," he said. "(Dinart) told me we were in the greatest sporting event in the world. He said, 'Just keeping going on, man.'"

Sigurdsson - and most of the other players - did not stay sad for long.

"I tell myself that we have not lost the gold, but won the silver," he said. "I am the happiest man in Asia. I am going to have a shower and dance naked in the street!".

Grimsson said he was considering granting the players the Order of the Falcon, Iceland's highest honor.

"They are an inspiration," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Gudjon Helgason in Reykjavik, Iceland, contributed to this story.

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