Men's handball team gives Iceland 2nd silver medal

Aug. 24, 2008, 9:57 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) As a 12-year-old boy, Iceland's president listened to the radio broadcast of his country's first Olympic silver medal.

More than 50 years later, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson watched as his nation claimed its second, losing to France in men's handball Sunday in the final event of the Beijing Olympics.

"The first one is still being remembered today, so you can imagine how this one is being received," Grimsson told The Associated Press after the match. "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 as people watched the match in their homes or in pubs and clubs. Companies allowed employees time off, while at least two cinemas screened the match 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 Iceland's handball performance in Beijing could be considered its greatest sporting achievement yet.

Aside from the 1956 silver in the triple jump, it has won two other bronzes, the last in 2000, and no golds. Despite its name, the country of just 300,000 people has never excelled at winter games, either.

Iceland - 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. Iceland's traveling support of about 300 was outnumbered and outsung by the French, who chanted throughout the match.

In handball, teams of seven compete on a court or field about the size of a basketball court, scoring points by throwing a small ball into the opposing team's net. The game - popular in Germany and other European nations but largely unheard of elsewhere - is often described as a cross between soccer, basketball and rugby.

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

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 out. 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.


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