August 8, 2012


Meet Ólafur Stefánsson: The Coolest Guy at the Olympics (JOE POSNANSKI   AUGUST 7, 2012)

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."

Posted by at August 8, 2012 5:30 AM

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