In Iceland, children are told the saga of a red-haired, freckled, and bad-tempered boy called Grettir the Strong. Grettir’s life is tumultuous, and he is an anti-hero. Although he courageously destroys a malevolent ghost, he also violently kills innocent men. Grettir is tremendously strong, but he is unaware of the extent of his strength. Grettir is, in many ways, a contradiction.
Iceland is an oddity in many of the same ways. Despite its small population of only 300,000, the country’s harsh history has formed the strongest men and women in the world.
Forged by Fire and Ice
Icelandic DNA is derived from some of the strongest warriors in history: the vikings. This group of seafarers was known for raiding villages, traveling in harsh weather, and colonizing previously undiscovered terrain.
In fact, Iceland remained uninhabitable until the 9th century, when Norsemen, or vikings, discovered the island. The country’s harsh climate and terrain has kept immigration and population growth low, so nearly all Icelanders today share the same ancestor. The website, Íslendingabók, or Book of Icelanders, can even trace the genealogy of any Icelandic citizen, allowing potential couples to avoid the awkwardness of realizing that they are also second cousins.
The Icelandic people have also reveled in their impressive ability to withstand even the most cataclysmic of situations. In 1402, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, reached Iceland and decimated nearly a third of the population, yet the country was able to recover without any major recorded protests or social dissatisfaction. Its neighbor Norway, on the other hand, suffered from a severe social upheaval that would last for nearly 200 years.
Over 300 years after the bubonic plague, another tragedy would strike Iceland. The Laki volcano distratriously erupted in 1783; for a period of eight months, lava devastated the land and haze filled the air. The eruption killed 25 percent of the country’s population, destroyed almost all of the country’s livestock, and caused massive crop failure. Even though the Laki eruption is widely recognized to be one of the most disastrous in history, the country survived and eventually reconstructed itself.
The Strongest Men
Since 1977, the most imposing men in the world have gathered and participated in a week-long, televised competition for the title of World’s Strongest Man. In a series of grueling tests of physical strength, competitors are made to carry 300 pound stones, throw massive logs, and pull trucks. Competitors are pushed to the brink of their abilities to lift the most weight and perform tasks as quick as possible.
Despite Iceland being one of the smallest countries to participate in World’s Strongest Man, it has won the most titles of any country. Moreover, the tiny island has provided the world with the competition’s most cherished icons, Jón Páll Sigmarsson. Sigmarsson was the first person to win the coveted title four times, and he remains one of only three men to be inducted in the World’s Strongest Man Hall of Fame. Another iconic strongman and one of Iceland’s biggest celebrities is Magnús Ver Magnússon, who has also been crowned World’s Strongest Man four times. Magnússon’s days as a competitor are long gone, yet he maintains his connection to the sport by training the new generation of strongmen at his gym, Jakobol.
Jakobol, which appropriately translates to “Nest of Giants,” is an grimy, underground gym specially designed to train Iceland’s premier group of strongmen. Located in a supermarket parking lot outside Reykjavik, Jakobol is not a place of frills. There are no yoga studios. There are no juice bars. There is barely any cardio equipment. Men come to Jakobol with a single goal in mind: to lift weights that equal the size of small cars.
Magnússon’s most successful student is a Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Standing at 6-feet-9-inches and weighing 400 pounds, Björnsson is aptly nicknamed “Thor”, and he has consecutively medaled in the last three World’s Strongest Man competitions. Whereas most of Magnússon’s students have taken up lifting as a hobby and hold two or three jobs, Björnsson’s life revolves around training for various national and international weightlifting competitions. He partakes in strenuous weight-lifting sessions six days a week and maintains a regimented diet of 10,000 calories a day. Björnsson is not simply a strongmen however; in the rare instances that he is not preparing for a competition, Björnsson can be found playing “The Mountain” on the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones.
The Fittest Women
Former gymnast Greg Glassman wanted to create a workout that pushed individuals to a state of blissful and complete exhaustion. By combining Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, and interval training, he invented CrossFit. The sport soon exploded in popularity, and today, there are nearly 13,000 CrossFit gyms throughout the world.
Iceland was caught in this new fitness phenomenon. The first gym in the country, CrossFit Reykjavik, was only inaugurated in 2009; however, it has become one of the largest gyms in the world. Although the establishment has more than 1,500 members, its owners believe there is still demand for expansion, even with the presence of 12 other similar gyms in Iceland alone. The nation has 0.1 percent of the world’s CrossFit gyms despite representing only 0.004 percent of the world’s population.
The sport’s popularity in Iceland has translated into a competitive surge. Every July, the best CrossFit athletes in the world gather in the birthplace of the sport, California, for the CrossFit Games and vie for the title of the Fittest on Earth.
Icelandic men might be the strongest in the world, but Icelandic women are perhaps the fittest; the country has consistently dominated the female division of the CrossFit Games. Last year, Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir, Ragnheiður Sara Sigmundsdottir, Annie Thorisdottir, and Thuridur Erla Helgadottir were all in the top 20 finishers. Davidsdottir was crowned the Fittest Woman on Earth, and Sigmundsdottir finished in third place.
The success of Annie Thorisdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir have made them some of the most famous Icelanders in the world. Their Instagram accounts combined have over a million followers while the accounts of soccer star Gylfi Sigurðsson has only 80,000, and even Icelandic musician Sigur Rós has just 200,000.
The Powerful Implications
Soccer and handball have historically been the most popular sports for young men and women in Iceland. Soccer is especially beloved, and the national team shockingly made it to the quarterfinals of the UEFA European Championship this year before losing to the host country, France. It is estimated that 10 percent of citizens of the tiny nation actually traveled to France to support their country live — a feat that certainly would seem unimaginable for a larger country.
Despite soccer’s popularity, weightlifting has become increasingly practiced by young athletes. Because strongmen, such as Björnsson, have gained considerable fame and success, many boys now strive to become bigger and stronger.
Furthermore, the media presence and popularity of CrossFitters have challenged female norms of beauty. Although athletes, such as Annie Thorisdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir, have the muscular frames necessary to perform at a high level in their sport, their bodies are unquestionably different from the prevailing thin and “twiggy” representations of female beauty. However, these views may be shifting. In 2014, Thorisdottir was featured in Vogue, where she stated that “attitudes have changed. Instead of the skinny look, it’s the healthy look for women now. Healthy is beautiful, being strong is beautiful.”
The Icelandic sagas are cherished as important chronicles of the country’s history. The tale of Grettir the Strong remains one of the most widely known stories in the arctic nation, yet children no longer need to aspire to be as strong as a character from a 14th century saga. Modern role models, like Hafþór Björnsson and Annie Thorisdottir, demonstrate that even a sparsely populated island can be mighty beyond comparison.
Image source: Flickr/Rose Physical Therapy Group