LONDON – A wonderful part of covering the Olympics is the potential for surprises. They are everywhere. On Monday, I went to watch my favorite minor sport of the Olympics, team handball. If you are an American watching team handball, you always end up thinking the same thing: “Wow, America should be the best in the world at this.” In fact, it’s the one game here at the Olympics where, as an observer, you honestly also think, “Hey, I wish I was playing.”
Handball is this awesome game with six on a side (and a goalkeeper), a ball slightly smaller than a volleyball, a net roughly the size of French doors, and all the fast breaks, furious shots and violence you can squeeze into one 60-minute game. Team handball has a little bit of basketball (players dribble the ball), a little bit of soccer (there are nets), a little bit of hockey (power plays), a little bit of dodgeball (you have to throw these dodgeball-sized balls as hard as you can) and a little bit of football (there’s some decent blocking and tackling going on in the middle).
But Monday’s handball match was something rare. I came to see Great Britain’s handball team. It’s quite possible that Great Britain fielded the worst handball team in Olympic history. Well, it wasn’t Britain’s fault, really. It only started playing team handball again six years ago. Then, at some point, its funding got cut off. And then … well, it never did get a whole lot better. You know the scene in a hundred movies where people say, “Well, it can’t get worse than this,” and then it starts pouring rain. That’s Great Britain team handball.
In the opening round, Britain played France, the world champion, and lost 44-15. When you consider that each goal in team handball is worth just one point, and that possessions are much longer than in basketball (there is no shot clock) and that the goalkeeper is more or less defenseless against a good shot … this was a blowout to challenge U.S. basketball’s 83-point win over Nigeria.
Then, to prove it was no fluke, the British lost to Sweden 41-19. They actually thought they had a chance against Argentina — it was a game they had been thinking about for months — and they lost 32-21. Tunisia then destroyed them 34-17, and that led to Monday’s inevitable blowout against Iceland, which had won the Olympic silver medal in Beijing and was probably a No-Line favorite (I did not check the team handball odds).
Only, Great Britain did not go along with the blowout theme. It was as if the British players could see the Disney movie that would be made of their lives. Their best player, a left-handed throwing sniper named Steven Larsson, scored nine goals, and goalkeeper Robert White somehow got in the way of eight shots — if you’ve watched handball you can’t help but wonder how a goalkeeper EVER blocks a shot — and at halftime Iceland led only 18-15. Everyone in the Copper Box stood and cheered. You expected Al Michaels to show up and shout, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Um, the answer would be “no.” Iceland came out in the second half and outscored Britain 24-9 in a 30-minute display of Globetrotter-like dominance. So, that was expected. Still, it was a fine effort, and the players got a standing ovation as they walked off, and they all talked about how, yes, the losing was tough but they hoped to get some people around England excited about the new sport. That seemed the storyline.
But, like I say, the Olympics are about surprises. There are just amazing things happening in every direction. At some point during the game, I noticed a very tall player from Iceland. I had no idea who he was, and he was not particularly involved in the game. I guess I noticed him BECAUSE he was not particularly involved. Every time Iceland went on the attack, there was a Great Britain defender whose sole job was to cover him. The rest of the British team seemed to be playing some sort of zone defense, but for this guy there was always a defender, sticking to him. The tall guy could be 50 feet away from the action, but the defender never left his side.
That seemed unusual. It was like a pentagon-and-one defense. But what was even more unusual was that the tall guy did not seem to mind. He looked quite a lot older than the rest of the players, and the constant defense seemed to amuse him. He did not spend any real effort trying to beat the defender or run around him or, well, anything. Instead, he would pass the ball and just stand back. He seemed perfectly content to stay to the side and let his five teammates play.
Every now and again, he would step into the action. Twice he was chosen to take his team’s penalty shot — a shot from seven meters away that was apparently designed to make goalkeepers look even more ridiculous than usual — and twice he scored on that. But other than that, he seemed oddly at peace standing off to the side by himself. Anyway, that’s how it seemed to me.
I only saw one moment of real brilliance from him. At one point in the second half, after Iceland had turned the game into a route, he had the ball on his own side of half court. He saw an open teammate downcourt and started to pass to him and then noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that the British goalkeeper, White, was running over to defend the pass. So, this tall man from Iceland simply faked the pass and then unleashed an 80-foot shot into the open net.
Who the heck was this guy?
His name is Ólafur Stefánsson. He is 39 years old. He is probably the greatest team handball player in Iceland’s history, and perhaps one of the greatest in the history of the sport. He is a legend in his country. He captained that Iceland team that won silver in Beijing in 2008.
A little context: Iceland has never won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics, and that silver is the only one the nation has won since 1956. The entire Iceland handball team of 2008 — with Stefánsson at the lead — was knighted.
“I am at the end,” he said in a shockingly soft voice in the moments after the rout of Great Britain was complete. “I wanted to help these men who still have road in front of them.”
“Respect is what defines you,” he said. “Integrity. … Ah, I am giving you abstract words.”
“You want to play well for long enough that you leave with a medal around your neck,” he said. “That is great. But in the end, it is not about medals. … It is the journey that stirs us.”
Holy Reykjavik, Batman. Who the heck is this guy? Five minutes ago, he was throwing a little ball into a net, and suddenly he sounded like he was preparing his Nobel Prize speech. He talked about how, though he was a team handball player and could not do anything about it, he felt guilty when the Iceland banks collapsed. He talked about how he wants to be a student, not of one thing but of all things in life. He talked about existentialism, about how too many brilliant ideas have descended into clichés, about his country’s hopes. He talked about how sport and life intertwine — the mind can carry you to do amazing things in both — but that it is easy to confuse one for the other. This is a mistake, he said. Sports are not life. And life is not sports.
And after 10 minutes, I become convinced that I have just met the single coolest person at the Olympics. A team handball player. From Iceland.
I did some background checking on him. It turns out he’s deep into religion and science. His LinkedIn page has him “bridging science and religion using Heisenberg’s (and Beckett’s) uncertainty theory,” which is exactly what I was planning on doing this weekend.
He has also scored more than 1,500 goals in team handball, written at length about how to improve Iceland’s education system, and expressed his own theories about the human mind and how people can reach beyond their limitations. He had considered retiring, but thought he could be of service to this team as a leader. He can still play, though. At these Olympics, he scored a goal at the very end of the first half that provided the difference in Iceland’s one-point upset of France. He thinks this team can bring some joy to Iceland.
It feels ridiculous to talk to someone like this about team handball — it feels a bit like asking Springsteen how to play scales — but he was perfectly happy to do this, too. He admits that the close score in the first half was largely due to Iceland sleepwalking, but he does so with some regret in his voice, and he was quick to talk about the joy and spirit with which the British played and the enthusiasm of the crowd. “They played very well,” he said, as if he was proud of them.
The Olympics are so gigantic, with so many athletes, each one of them representing not only a single dream, but also the dreams of so many of their family and friends and neighbors and communities and cities and states and countries. We all have to simplify because it’s too big, so we concentrate on Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and Jessica Ennis and some promising athlete from the neighborhood who swam eight hours a day or ran nonstop at the local track or practiced her gymnastics all day after school. But the truth is, you could walk into any Olympic arena and find a story.
Ólafur Stefánsson said he does not know yet what he will do when these Games have concluded. His journey will end then, his team handball days will be over. He knows this. He has some ideas, but he does not want to talk about it now. For now, he wants to lead his team in his last Olympics while his struggling nation watches closely. The next game is against Hungary, and it will be tough.
“We must wake up now,” he says. “In our eyes, we must be strong.” I might have misheard that, or he might have not said it exactly the way he meant. But I like it. In our eyes, we must be strong. I came to write about Great Britain’s powerless-but-game handball team. I left rooting for Iceland to win its first-ever gold. You never know at the Olympics.