A quick look at Iceland’s medal table:
Zero gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze.
Standing in the lobby of the handball arena, Magnus Bjarnason counts them on his fingers: triple jump in 1952, judo in 1984, pole vault in 2000.
He has memorized all the Olympic medalists in his country’s history.
Almost. The triple jump silver was actually in 1956.
But that is why he is here – and happy. Today, Iceland beat Poland in the quarterfinals of the men’s handball tournament.
If you don’t know what handball is, that’s not terribly important. Just think of it as water polo played on land. Moving on, the rather more important fact, is that Iceland is in the semifinal of an Olympic sport.
If you built four Bird’s Nests (and China would probably be willing to do it, if the Icelanders asked politely), you could fit Iceland's 300,000 people with 64,000 seats to spare.
Put another way, when the 15 men of the handball team left for Beijing, 0.005 percent of the population departed. If you did an all-time per capita Summer Olympics medal table, Iceland’s three medals would be one-quarter more than America’s 2,177 pre-Beijing medals.
Did I mention there aren’t many people in Iceland?
And can you begin to understand why Magnus Bjarnason is bouncing around with men in fuzzy blue-and-red Viking helmets, yelping his head off?
The kitschy helmets are redundant, really. This is the land of no last names – so faithful to its Viking language and heritage that every one is known as so-and-so’s son or daughter. Magnus Bjarnason’s son, standing beside him, is Gustav Magnusson.
And he is happy, too.
Having beaten Poland (population 39 million), can Iceland beat Spain (population 40 million) and secure at least a silver? Could the team even win the country’s first gold medal?
“We can win anything,” says Bjarnason.
His optimism is not merely the euphoria of the moment. Iceland is fairly good at handball, a sport played almost exclusively in Europe. And it has been here once before. It finished fourth in the Barcelona Games. But that was Iceland’s best-ever result in a major international handball tournament.
In the worst-case scenario, the team has at least matched that.
“It would be 15 gold medals, because everyone on the team gets one,” reasons Bjarnason.