Iceland in the world of élite sports – Viking heredity or modern-day smarts?

Eivind Å. Skille
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences

Vidar Halldorsson
Sport in Iceland: How Small Nations Achieve International Success
142 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017
ISBN 978-1-138-68179-8

First, I would like to thank the editor of for the opportunity to review this book. It was an interesting challenge, where I switched between being the strict and disappointed reviewer and being the eager and fascinated reader. In sum, I was clearly more of the latter than of the former. Second, I am glad Routledge started this series, with small pinpointed books. The case of Iceland is an example of a phenomenon that deserves its own little book.

The book takes as its point of departure the Icelandic success in huge international sports such as football, handball and basketball. It aims at explaining the success with more and better analyses than just referring to the “Viking heritage thesis”. The book does so by sociological approaches, by presenting a number of local, cultural and international factors of sports development more generally, and by employing sociological theory. Empirically, it is based on a number of interviews with Icelandic athletes and coaches, as well as foreigners.

In general, the book sheds an informative light on the Icelandic sports system and Icelandic culture as explanations for sporting success.

Some of my critical remarks refer primarily to the first half of the book. It is not –in the first half at least – clear how unique the Icelandic sport system is, in comparison to other Nordic welfare states. Is it professionalized or amateur sport? In one way, the point seems to be the amateur element of Icelandic sport, while at the same time it is stated that ‘clubs employ full-time staff, who handle the day-to-day running’ (p. 33). The first half conveys a sense of repetition of points related to volunteerism, open for all, and amateurism.

Moreover, the first steps into an explanation of the Icelandic success build on the import of foreign – especially (but not exclusively) former east bloc coaches who are used to do things (training for sport skills and performance development) systematically and totally. This leaves an impression that the explanation for Icelandic success is not Icelandic (see for example the section on global sporting policies, pp. 50-51), until about halfway through the book (chapters 1 to 4).

More of the same feeling develops in the reader when chapter 5 starts; however, there comes a tipping point in the story/history and in the book, when the author refers to a Finnish ice hockey coach who said that Icelandic athletes believe they can beat anyone. From there on, the amateurism and the Viking story and everything else make sense. Most importantly, in the rest of the book the sociological explanations are more explicit.

Halldorsson speaks about the Icelandic attributes in chapter 6. As long as culture is hard to “measure”, I like the figures in chapter 6 (pp. 69–71). Two of them simply identify (i) that Iceland scores low on height, weight and years of experience among the players in the national men’s handball team; and (ii) that the players in the national men’s basketball team are of low average height. The point is that Iceland scores low at indicators of performativity in these sports. It has to be something else that explains success. This “something else” is indicated in a figure showing measures of behavior, and even including ideology.

And combined with subsequent sociological ideas of groups, interaction and culture, this works. Halldorsson makes us understand that the Icelandic culture is not (only) about “madness”; it is about social control, social capital, close relationships and networking in small societies; it is nicely summarized with the concept of collective individualists. It is personal agency and responsibility connected to the development of sporting performance, and at the same time there is a collective expectation of going all in when representing the national team and the nation.

Going back to the focus on national teams, the analysis of how Iceland’s national teams always must create the strategies from the available players due to the limited number of them, makes sense in the explanation of how Iceland counters all the ‘common and essential characteristics’ (p. 96) of international elite sport.

If I would have liked to see something more in this book, it is this; part of the story lacks further considerations regarding the national teams, whose successes are explained, and their relationship to the everyday training for young and upcoming athletes in Iceland. Some hints are, for instance, the continuation of the amateur ideal, still visible in today’s ‘competitive play’ (p. 97) and actually dating back to the sagas of the Vikings, as well as the fact that athletes take responsibility for their own training sessions (p. 98).

All in all, the book is well written and insightful, hence it is warmly recommended.

Copyright © Eivind Å. Skille 2017

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