National Olympic Legends: the Icelandic handball goalkeeper who enjoyed a stellar debut
Bjorgvin Pall Gustavsson felt the heartache that goes with missing out on a place in an Olympic squad but used it to fuel his ambition to appear on sport’s greatest stage – and did so for the first time at a remarkable stage in his career...
Bjorgvin Pall Gustavsson’s handball career peaked in his first international tournament as he led his Iceland team to their nation’s best-ever Olympic result.
The Nordic island reached the men’s final at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 but had to settle for silver after a 28-23 defeat by France. Following the Games, Gustavsson and his team-mates were hailed as heroes back home, when a fifth of Iceland’s population turned out to celebrate what was the nation’s fourth medal in Olympic history.
“How we were received made everything much bigger for me,” Gustavsson, 34, said. “People came from all over the country to celebrate with us. There were about 60,000 people on the streets, which is pretty cool for a nation of about 300,000. The whole of Reykjavik was outside and we flew over the city to see all the people waiting for us in the town. It was an amazing experience and it’s still one of the biggest days that I’ve known.”
At 19, the goalkeeper had travelled to Greece with the national team to prepare for the Athens 2004 Games but ultimately missed out on a spot in the squad. That late elimination then served as motivation for Gustavsson in the four years that followed. “It was a very good teaser for me to see what it’s all about and to give me a goal,” he said. “Now I knew exactly what they were going through and I was willing to fight for my spot in the national team.” In 2008, the international tournament debutant was meant to share goalkeeping duties with Hreidar Levy Gudmundsson but ended up playing a key role in Iceland’s historic result.
“Most people thought that, once again, I was going to be the one cut out just before the Olympics, so it was a bit of a risky choice by the coach to go for a young goalkeeper in such a big tournament,” Gustavsson said. “But it paid off for him. I played 50/50 with the other goalkeeper in the beginning and then in the last phase I got to play more and more and more.” Gustavsson saved 41 per cent of Poland’s shots in the quarter-final and blocked a third of what came against him in the semi against Spain, pulling his team through to the final.
The buzz in and around the Olympic Village – so often regarded as a challenging distraction for Games debutants – had the opposite effect on Gustavsson, who in fact drew inspiration from it.
“I was just enjoying the moment. The whole experience was just like a fantasy,” he said. “I almost felt like a tourist in the beginning of the tournament, and I was just enjoying every day as much as I could. If I compare it to the 2012 Olympics, in 2008 I stopped every famous athlete and asked for pictures. It was kind of embarrassing for all the other players in the team, but I was young and stupid and loved the moment and it didn’t bother me at times, so it was very, very fun.
“My biggest memories were of course meeting [USA basketball stars] Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and [Brazilian footballer] Ronaldinho. It was a pretty awesome thing for a young guy to be playing at the same level as these athletes. And it gave me a lot of power and energy to deliver in the tournament.”
His biggest Olympic idol, however, has always been compatriot Vala Flosadottir, whose bronze in the women's pole vault at Sydney 2000 is the only other Games medal that has been brought back to Iceland in Gustavsson’s lifetime. “She was my first memory of an Olympic hero,” Gustavsson said.
“It came so suddenly because it’s not a huge sport in Iceland, so nobody was watching her preparations. It just came overnight and it was a very nice surprise. She went from being not so famous in Iceland to being very famous.” The Beijing 2008 silver won by Gustavsson and his team matched the medal claimed by Vilhjalmur Einarsson in the men’s triple jump at Melbourne 1956. They remain Iceland’s best Olympic Games results. “We got an honorary medal from the President and, to be honest, that meant a lot to me,” he said. “It showed that this was something for Iceland, and it gave the whole thing another meaning.”
The success also kick-started a long professional career during which he has competed in Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, where he currently plays for Skjern Handbold. Having won Iceland’s first-ever international handball medal in Beijing, the golden generation followed it up with a bronze at the Austria 2010 European Championship. Today, Gustavsson dreams of getting back on the Olympic podium. “It set the bar very high to start my career with that silver medal,” he said. “But I think that it’s good because it means that I compete every day to be able to go back to the Olympics some day. I started watching handball when I was eight years old and followed every tournament after that, and of course the Olympics were always something special.”
Gustavsson thinks that he still has between five and eight years left to play at senior level, depending on his health. When the day comes to hang up his characteristic hairband, he hopes to end his career the same way that it started.
“I always look at the Olympics as a checkpoint in my career,” he said. “The Olympics is a big step and for many handball players, in some cases, also the last. “Many plan their handball lives around the Games and my dream is also to make my last national team match in an Olympic tournament. Hopefully I’ll get one or two more chances to do that.”