Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Sports, pastimes : Icelandic

  • Sports, pastimesIcelandic
  • Cultural Field
    Helgason, Jón Karl

    Although mainstream sports and athletics have all had a place in Icelandic history, Icelandic wrestling, or glíma, stands out as a specifically national sport. Opponents compete in an upright, straight-backed position, moving constantly and having various grips on each other’s wrestling belts. Glíma obtained a particular “national” aura because the sagas, which describe the lives of the first generations of Icelanders in the 10th and 11th centuries, refer several times to glíma champions. The most renowned of these was Grettir Ásmundarson; the so-called Grettisbeltið (“Grettir’s Belt”), named after him, is still the most highly respected award for glíma wrestlers. References to the sport can also be found in later sources, including school records, building up to the watershed years of the 1870s, which saw the establishment of the Reykjavík Glíma Club. Sigurður Guðmundsson designed the club’s flag: a white falcon on a blue background; this for some time served as an important symbol in the nation’s struggle for independence. In its first years, the club held an annual glíma tournament in Reykjavík. A glíma exhibition and contest was organized at the 1874 festival celebrating the millennium of the settlement. Glíma has remained a fixed element of all such festivals ever since.

    In 1880, the Reykjavík Glíma Club was disbanded, to be succeeded by the Ármann Glíma Club, founded in 1888. The sport then played an integral part in the activities of many Icelandic sports clubs and youth associations that were established over the next two decades, the most historic result of which was the attendance by Icelandic glíma wrestlers at the London and Stockholm Olympics in 1908 and 1912 respectively. On the first of these occasions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the Icelanders could not participate except under the Danish flag. The team captain, Jóhannes Jósefsson (1883–1968), nevertheless managed to gain permission from the IOC president for the seven Icelanders to demonstrate glíma as an exhibition sport. As the team members entered the Olympic stadium under the Icelandic flag, the Danish competitors briefly and unsuccessfully tried to stop them. In his autobiography, Jóhannes interprets this moment as a symbolic victory in the nation’s fight for political independence.

    Four years later, a group of seven glíma wrestlers and one sprinter headed for the Stockholm Olympics. This time, they obtained official permission from the Danish Olympic Committee to compete under the Icelandic flag, but the Danish captain, with the support of the Swedish officials, countered by having the Danish and Icelandic competitors enter as one group. As a result, the Icelanders chose not to attend the opening ceremony. On this occasion, they did not merely showcase glíma as a demonstration sport, but also competed against each other for a cup that their fellow-countrymen in Copenhagen had donated. All this formed part of a drive to spread the sport internationally and have it officially recognized as an Olympic sport. Jóhannes Jósefsson’s 1908 English booklet about glíma served the same purpose. Despite these efforts, the Icelanders’ dream of glíma catching on internationally failed to be realized.

    Word Count: 529

    Article version
  • Bjarnason, Björn; Íþróttir fornmanna Nordurlöndum (Reykjavik: Bókfellsútgáfan, 1950).

    Friðþjófsson, Sigurður Á.; Íþróttir í Reykjavík (Reykjavík: Íþróttabandalag Reykjavíkur, 1994).

    Guðmundsson, Gils; Íþróttsamband Íslands fimmtíu ára: 1912 – 28. janúar – 1962 (Reykjavík: Íþróttasamband Íslands, 1962).

    Jónsson, Ingimar; Íþróttir a-j (Reykjavik: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs og Þjóðvinafélagsins, 1976).

    Jónsson, Stefán; Jóhannes á borg (Reykjavik: Ægisútgáfan, 1964).

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Helgason, Jón Karl, 2022. "Sports, pastimes : Icelandic", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 20-06-2024.