Deep North Episode 52: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic flag

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this different and fun archival piece for the annual Icelandic Language Day. In this 1973 article, an Irish student at the University of Iceland laments the difficulties of learning Icelandic. We dust off this article and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, about learning Icelandic.

Read the original archival article here.

From the Archive: Women Look to the Future

women's day off iceland

On October 24, 1975, women across Iceland went on strike to demonstrate the importance of their labour, both professional and domestic. Known as kvennafrídagurinn, or Women’s Day Off, some 90% of Icelandic women participated in the labour action. Shortly after, in 1976, Iceland passed its first legislation on gender pay equality, and though little was fixed overnight, it was a step in the right direction. Since the initial 1975 strike, Women’s Day Off has been held several times, with women symbolically leaving work early to demonstrate the still-extant pay gap. As of 2022, the unadjusted gender pay gap in Iceland was 9.1%.

Given the importance of this day, the editorial staff of Iceland Review was surprised to find no coverage of the original 1975 strike in our archives. It was only in 1985, after another 10-year anniversary strike, that the magazine’s editorial team covered the burgeoning women’s rights movement.

If progressive legislation on gender pay equality is still relatively young in Iceland (trailing the US Equal Pay Act of 1963 by more than a decade, for instance), many mindsets and attitudes have likewise only changed in the surprisingly recent past. Norms can change quickly, and although Iceland is often hailed as a beacon of social progress, this history is in many ways still a young one. And while our coverage (or lack thereof) of Women’s Day Off shows that change does sometimes happen overnight, social progress is not something that plays out automatically in history. History is moved when people come together and act, like so many Icelandic women did in 1975.

NB: This archival content first appeared in Iceland Review in 1986. As such, it may not reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The meeting was the most unforgettable I have ever taken part in. It convinced me that though a huge meeting of men of the same mind might influence the authorities when women achieve such conviction, the foundations of society creak,” commented Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, union leader and one of three speakers on Iceland’s famous Women’s Day in 1975. On 24th October, Icelandic women staged a one-day stoppage both at home and in the workplace, marking the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women. Women drew attention to the importance of their work with the largest open-air meeting ever held in Iceland, attended by 25,000 people at Laekjartorg in central Reykjavik.

The clearest single indication of the achievements of the Decade for Women, which has just come to an end, is the election of a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, to the presidency in 1980. Not simply a symbol of national unity and a splendid representative of her country on her travels abroad. President Vigdis presents living proof that women’s campaign for equal rights involves deeds as well as words. Many of her backers during the run-up to the election were men, and she was elected by voters of both sexes – proof that great strides have been taken towards real equality. The individual is no longer judged by sex but for his or her own character.

Marking the end of the Decade for Women, new surveys on the status of women in Iceland have confirmed various established facts, while also revealing that men and women in Iceland have enjoyed equal educational rights since the passing of legislation in 1911. But in spite of eight decades of nominal equality, the roles of men and women still differ greatly, both in education and at work.

Over 90% of student teachers and nurses are women, while only a handful of female students can be found at the Technical College, agricultural colleges, and the Marine College. The last decade has, however, seen women make a strong bid for education, and since 1980 over 40% of graduates from the University of Iceland have been women, as against only 20% in 1975-6. The majority are still graduating with a BA degree in the humanities or with a BSc in nursing, while men dominate the Faculty of Engineering and Science.

women's day off iceland

According to statistics from 1983, women made up 43.5% of the workforce, while their wages were only 29.3% of total income. Married women, 24.8% of the workforce, earned only 16.7% of the total. Although women in unskilled occupations now suffer little pay discrimination, among the university-educated, the gap between men’s and women’s salaries has, if anything, widened, but this factor reflects women’s choice of subject at university level. Women earn only 65% of the national average wage per man-year, which has hardly changed since 1980; this indicates that women predominate in the lowest-paid categories.

In “Women, What Next?,” a book which reviews women’s achievements over the past decade, Marge Thome puts forward the interesting theory that low pay is one of the factors which influences Icelandic women to bear more children (2-3) than the average western European. The wife’s wages make such a relatively insignificant contribution to the household that she feels able to stay at home with her children for several years. In many cases, she has no choice, as only 8.9% of children aged 2 to 5 are provided with full-time day nursery care, and the majority of places are allotted to priority groups such as single parents and students. About 35% of children aged 2 to 5 can attend playschool for half the working day. Childminders are in great demand, as about 80% of Icelandic women go out to work either full- or part-time.

Although President Vigdi’s Finnbogadottir has set a spectacular precedent, Icelandic women in general have a difficult time reaching positions of leadership. In the Althing (parliament), women only hold nine of the sixty seats, and in the seventy years since female suffrage became a reality, only 17 women have been elected to Althing. Two women have held ministerial portfolios, and five have been ministerial under-secretaries.

Women have done better in local politics, and in three districts women hold 40% of council seats; but on the other hand, 50% of local councils include no woman at all, mostly in rural areas. In the past decade, the number of women in managerial positions in the civil service has risen by 7%, and women have become increasingly active in the trade union movement.

Compared with women in general around the world, Icelandic women have a good many advantages. They live to an average age of 80 years – and generally the Icelanders and Japanese lead the world in longevity. This indicates the high standard of health care, which is almost unparalleled, especially with regard to maternity and child health. In the 1960s, preventive health care for women was spotlighted by a mass campaign against cervical cancer, the second most common form of the disease in Icelandic women. The campaign has produced tangible results in the form of a dramatic drop in the incidence of cervical cancer and greatly improved chances of cure. A similar mass screening service is now being introduced for breast cancer.

It was never claimed that women would achieve full equality by the end of the Decade for Women, but surveys show women gaining ground in every field, especially in the arts. The number of women in the Writers’ Association, for instance, has doubled in the past ten years, and women are clearly not resting on their laurels, even though their decade may be over.

From the Archive: The Ancient Art of Glíma

glíma wrestling iceland

From the archive: In this 1999 article from Iceland Review, Jón Ívarson delves into the history of Icelandic wrestling. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The one truly Icelandic national sport is a type of wrestling known as glíma. After decades of neglect, glíma has been enjoying a major revival in popularity during recent years, especially among young people.

Wrestling has been practiced in Iceland ever since the country was settled, and there are early references to a form based on tricks performed with the legs and feet. The name “glíma” is first mentioned in the 12th century, and it is thought probable that the word means “the game of gladness.”

The most likely explanation of the origin of glíma seems to be that two types of wrestling, that of the “Eastmen” (Norwegians) which did not employ foot tricks, and that of the “Westmen” (Irish) which did, merged in Iceland to produce a new sport – glíma. Wrestling based on so-called “trouser-grips” was practiced for hundreds of years in Iceland and continued almost unchanged right up to this century. At the same time, however, other forms of wrestling were also in use: the so-called “loose-grips,” in which it was permitted to grip the opponent’s body more or less anywhere, and “back-spanning,” both of which often amounted to a mere trial of strength. It is worth noting that glíma-trained men would sometimes incorporate tricks from “back-spanning” if they could get away with them.

glíma wrestling iceland

More or less everything in Iceland was originally imported - our language, industry, occupations, sports - everything, that is, except glíma, which is wholly Icelandic. It seems quite miraculous that here in Iceland we should develop a form of wrestling which is based more on technique and artistry than on energy, weight and strength as is the case with most other types of wrestling in the world. Glíma is one of 112 recognised types of national wrestling throughout the world.

Glíma wrestlers keep a firm grasp on a harness which is fastened around each contestant’s waist and thighs. No other grips are permitted. Tricks are then applied with the feet, and the body is employed with bends, jerks and swings to upset the opponent’s balance and knock him to the ground, a fall marking the end of the contest.

A picturesque sport

Foreigners who watch glíma wrestling are without exception struck by its lightness, and many people find it a picturesque sport. Our neighbors, the Norwegians and Danes, once had their own traditional wrestling sports, but these disappeared long ago, and in Sweden, the only remnant survives on the island of Gotland. These countries greatly envy the Icelanders their glíma. The English, Scots, and Bretons, on the other hand, have their own national wrestling styles that are enthusiastically maintained.

Right up until this century, glíma was a form of wrestling in which the contestants took a grip on each other’s clothes using so-called “trouser-grips.” The trousers of glíma heroes had to suffer a great deal of wear and tear before people came up with the idea of gripping-straps, which subsequently developed into a special harness used in Iceland since the first decade of this century.

In glíma the contestants must stand upright. In all other forms of wrestling contestants bend over as far as they can, their stance resembling a 90° angle, but bending is banned in glíma where it is considered a major fault.

During the last few centuries, glíma was practiced in schools, at fishing camps, and as a recreation on festive occasions, such as wedding feasts. People also used to enjoy a match or two after church. The usual practice was for contestants to be divided into two groups for team-wrestling (lit. “farmers’ wrestling”), a form which was especially common in temporary fishing camps where two crews would compete to defend the honor of their boats.

iceland glima wrestling

Symbol of nationalism

Shortly after the turn of the century, there was a great upsurge of national feeling among Iceland’s young people. Although still ruled by Denmark, the nation was beginning to find its feet again and was no longer content with its lack of freedom. One sign of this was the formation of youth societies in every district. These were highly nationalist in their sympathies and came to see glíma as a symbol of national revival and the struggle for independence.

Glíma is characterised by treading or stepping. Contestants take a special sequence of steps between bouts which cause them to move in a circle, keeping constantly in motion. An airy, circular movement which resembles the steps of a dancer, stepping serves the purpose of maintaining the sport’s lightness and creating openings for attack and defence. Competent stepping is an essential feature of good glíma.

Glíma has probably never been practiced as widely as it was during this period. In 1907, a wrestling competition was held on Thingvellir, the Parliament Plains, which was without doubt the most famous sporting event ever held in Iceland. It was known as the King’s glíma of 1907, as in that year Iceland was visited by the King of Denmark for only the second time in history. Glíma was the natural choice as representing the best, most nationalist display the Icelanders could put on for such an important head of state. Johannes Josefsson, the great champion from Akureyri in the north of Iceland, swore an please clean up this text by fixing the spacing and spelling:  oath to uphold the honour of the Northerners by remaining undefeated in the King’s glíma on Thingvellir plains, or never hold up his head again. The Icelandic nation went wild at this bold claim and glíma champions from the south of Iceland began to train for all they were worth to take the swaggering Northerner down a peg or two. For months no one talked of anything in Iceland but who would triumph in the King’s glíma. No national games or sporting event today has attracted anything like as much attention. In the event, Josefsson came third, and the story of the competition is related in many books, not least in Josefsson’s own highly entertaining biography Johannes of Borg. Josefsson later went abroad and became a famous circus-performer in America. Using glíma as the basis for his self-defence method, he took on everyone from boxers to knife-fighters and was victorious every time. Josefsson came home in 1927, so rich as a result of his shows that he was able to build Hotel Borg in Reykjavik largely out of his own pocket.

Glíma becomes a competitive sport

During these years, glíma changed from being a popular pastime, practised in a haphazard fashion according to the occasion, into being a competitive sport with strict regulations and official tournaments. People stopped ripping each other’s trousers and began instead to use the glíma harness. In 1906 the first Icelandic glíma championship was held. This tournament celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and is thus the oldest sports competition in the country. The “Grettir” Belt (named after one of the most famous wrestlers and saga heroes of ancient times) is the most magnificent and historically renowned prize in Icelandic sporting history and the title of “glíma king” has a special ring to it. Two other historic glíma competitions are Skjaldarglíma Armanns, named in honour of Reykjavik’s greatest wrestling champion, which has been going since 1908, and Skjaldarglíma Skarphedins which has been held in the south of Iceland since 1910.

glima wrestling in iceland

During the Second World War years, glíma was abandoned in many districts as a large number of people moved away from the countryside. Many went to Reykjavik, however, where wrestling continued to be practised vigorously. The greatest glíma champion in the country at that time was Gudmundur Agustsson, who some consider the best wrestler of the century. Agustsson was a glamorous figure and fine wrestler and there is no doubt that the attendance at glíma matches increased greatly when he took part, the increase being largely accounted for by female admirers.

On the rise

The rules of glíma were amended in 1966 to make the sport lighter and nimbler and to reduce the abuses or fouls which had always tended to blight the game. As part of this process the wrestlers’ canvas shoes were replaced with leather ones and adjustments were made to their harnesses.

It is not permitted to commit a foul in glíma. The attacker must keep his balance once the trick has been executed and must not fall on top of his opponent on the ground, as this would be considered a foul. The concept of a foul hardly exists in foreign forms of wrestling. In the opinion of the Glíma Association, these three factors combine to make glíma a particularly attractive spectator sport and it is therefore vital that we continue to honour them.

During the last decade, the age of glíma contestants has been lowered and women have at last been permitted to enter the arena. Teenagers are now allowed to wrestle but must do so on mattresses to avoid injury, and this has given good results. The main problem facing glíma is that few practise the sport and there are barely enough trainers to go round. The Glíma Association has reacted to this state of affairs with an energetic campaign to introduce the sport to elementary schools all over the country. This has proved successful and glíma is now practised in places where it had not been seen for decades, and the number of contestants in wrestling competitions, particularly in the younger categories, has dramatically increased. For example, in 1983 there were only 9 contestants for the Icelandic glíma championship in all age and weight categories while, in contrast, at the last Championship in 1997 there were 120 participants. This has led to increased optimism that glíma is on the way to enjoying a new heyday at the end of the century, reminiscent of its popularity in the early days of the youth society movement.

From the Archive: President Vigdís

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1982. Archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir got to know her countrymen intimately during the presidential campaign in early 1980 — the first such campaign in Iceland where the candidates actively electioneered. It pleased her immensely to find out how much people in general knew about their country and its history. She came to the conclusion that common people in Iceland talk together much more than is usual in other countries — rather a novel discovery. She maintains that her experience in the theatre has been very useful in her present job. She is a firm believer in the future of small nations, provided they learn to stick together and utilize their potentials in a rational manner.

I was expected to do one better than the men.

Informality is a hallmark of Icelandic society, so there were no uniformed guards standing inside or out, as I walked into the office of the President, located in an old one-story building facing the central square of Reykjavik. The building, one of the very oldest in town, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was at one time a Danish prison. President Vigdi’s is a tall, handsome, vital and quick-witted woman in her early fifties. Prior to her elections, she was for eight years manager of the Reykjavik Theatre Company. She is single and has one adopted child, and claims it would be difficult for a man of her generation to be the President’s husband. The pace she set during the campaign, when she travelled throughout the country speaking and meeting people, has continued. She has also made official visits to three of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as to Great Britain.

Warm and friendly

“Surely you did not envision some two years ago that you would be sitting here today,” I said to President Vigdís after we sat down in her modest office. What made you run for president?

“As soon as it became known that President Kristjan Eldjarn would decline renomination, some of my friends and a number of strangers started coaxing me, pressing me to step forward. Out of the blue, they started enumerating various qualities which would stand me in good stead in this high office. I was supposed to know my country and its people well through my previous occupations. They said I was eloquent in Icelandic as well as in some foreign languages. When the campaign got underway, I was said to be quick to get out of a tight spot and to make a good impression, to be warm and friendly. Not so few also maintained that I never made distinctions among people. This was not only said by my friends, but also by people who did not know me personally. Now as then, I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.”

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland
President Vigdís with Crown Prince Harald and King Olav V of Norway.

I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.

“I think that my teaching in secondary-school and on television has a lot to do with it. I am essentially modest and never believe I can do things as well as they ought to be done, but my upbringing made me ambitious to do my very best in any job. Actually, the idea that I should run for President first came to my attention more than three years ago. I had given a speech to a gathering of intellectuals, and later I was told that, after I left, the idea that I would make a good candidate was aired. At the time I thought the idea was preposterous.”

But you changed your mind?

“Well, when the first candidate came forward, the idea was revived. After Dr. Eldjarn had officially announced his intention of retiring from public life, there was not a moment’s respite. At first I did not really take it seriously, pushed the idea aside, wanted the closing date for announcing candidacies to pass. The other candidates stepped forward, but I hedged despite telegrams and delegations. I even stayed away from the Theatre. Then one night at the home of my friend and colleague, Tomas Zoega, who was the business manager of the Theatre, I decided to run. Several of my friends were present, and their main argument was that it was fitting, in view of the great success of Women’s Day in Reykjavik in 1975, that a woman should stand for election to the highest office of the land. As soon as I had made up my mind, my friends said, We all stand behind you! It never entered my mind that I would get elected, but I also felt sure that my candidacy would not be a total fiasco. I merely wanted to prove that a woman could take part in a presidential campaign on an equal footing with men.”

Obviously a gain for the liberation movement

Did you look upon your candidacy as somehow part of the women’s liberation movement? Or were other considerations more important?

“Not as part of the women’s liberation movement, no. But to me it seemed natural that some woman should run—that she should seek the office as an equal. At the time I happened to be at a crossroads in my life. I had just resigned from my job at the Theatre. I had no ties. I knew I would be exposed to a good deal of criticism during the campaign. But my mother and other close relatives were so old that they would not be told what might be said about me, and my little girl was too young to understand. This appraisal proved correct. I am quite convinced that I would not have run, had I been married.

I now appear so often at meetings all over the country that I could not expect a husband my age to be ready to follow me wherever I go on official business—and people would find it strange for me to be travelling alone most of the time. We live in an era when women still more or less live their lives through their husbands, not the other way around. Women my age very often see their surroundings through the eyes of their husbands, which of course can be excellent binoculars to look through at the world.”

Do you nevertheless look upon your election as a gain for the women’s liberation movement?

“The election was obviously a gain for the liberation movement. But I was not elected as a result of that struggle. If women had joined forces I should have won at least 50 percent of the votes. A very considerable proportion of my votes came from men, particularly old and young ones. The older generation really wanted to elect a woman. It is in truth hard to believe how many of the older generation supported me—especially elderly men. I suppose they were thinking of the future—the future of their daughters. I think men become women’s liberation champions for their daughters, not for their mothers or wives.”

Did you feel that you benefited or suffered for being a woman during the campaign?

The King of Sweden and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

“Mostly I was treated with respect, even though political fanaticism sometimes raised its ugly head. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have had and still have strong opinions, especially regarding the struggle for the national and cultural independence of our people. This seems to have confused some people. I was supposed to be a communist sympathizer and to be opposed to church and religion. A strange conclusion indeed! This loose use of political labels is not only irritating but downright dangerous. I suppose we are all idealists and sympathize with the ideal of equality. Does that make one a communist? For one thing, how can an Icelandic nationalist possibly accept the subjugation of other nations or condone what has happened and is happening in various parts of the world? I stand for equality, cultural growth, national independence, world peace, and the hope that humanity may avoid a third and final holocaust.”

What was most surprising to you during the presidential campaign?

“My greatest pleasure was meeting this nation of ours. I had never imagined what fun it would be to travel around the country, visit farms and factories, talk to people from all walks of life and discover that they were articulate in a way that is becoming rarer in the big urban centres — to meet people who know their country and its history inside out. It was a revelation. I had mostly seen the country Irom a car window, driving along the highways, but not come into direct contact with the people themselves. It was a great experience, particularly in the sparsely populated areas. I had never expected the impressive qualities of those people. They were so wide awake and well informed. I think the common people in this country talk together much more than is usual in other countries I know.”

Wider powers not the goal

Then, on 1 August 1980, you took office. Was it hard to assume the new role? Were you nervous? Were you apprehensive about replacing your predecessor? Have your experiences in teaching and the theatre been of use to you?

“That’s a big bunch of questions. No, I was not nervous. I don’t think I am the nervous type. I had no idea of what I was in for. Nobody knows beforehand what he or she is in for. My predecessor guided and helped me in every way possible. We were in the peculiar situation of having no trade union to help us. My predecessor performed his duties with such excellence—for years, I had admired his performance—that I felt apprehensive about not being able to do equally well. I have tried my best. But obviously, each of us does the job in accordance with his or her character. It is impossible to imitate others. Each of us creates a different image of the office. But at the same time, we try to preserve established traditions. I don’t want this office to gain wider powers; it should not aim at monarchy. My experience in the theatre has been valuable. Whoever deals with drama gets to know human nature in the most diverse circumstances. I entered this office with the experience that nothing in human nature or conduct is entirely unexpected. Of course, you never know how much you actually do know, but I have learned so much about human beings in the theatre so I don’t judge harshly. I have learned to be tolerant of everything except prejudice.”

president of iceland vigdís

Do you find it hard to be your own real self when you appear in public? Can you say what is on your mind and do what you like in a world where for instance flirting lends a certain colour to life?

“It is hard to change a 51-year-old person even if every opinion should be changed whenever valid reasons suggest that. I don’t find it difficult to appear in public. I always enjoy being with other people and think I am my old self all the time. I hope I’ll never lose the joy of life nor the human touch. Whether you flirt with a child or a man, mutual understanding is always a pleasure, and the moment’s delight from one day to another is what actually counts.”

During your official visit to Denmark last year, the Danes found you more open and outspoken than is common for heads of state. Do you think they were right? If so, do you consider this an asset?

The President should be as close to the people as possible.

“There is no doubt that as a popularly elected, non-political head of state I can allow myself to say more than royalty can. It is obvious that those brought up in a certain manner to fulfill prescribed duties have a different attitude. I never make a political statement and take no stand on political questions – unless we agree that the whole of life is in a certain sense politics. I am very discreet and try not to change that strand in my nature. I would never dream of revealing secrets, and find myself to be one of the most reticent Icelanders now alive — like a doctor who has taken his Hippocratic oath. That’s why I could follow my intuition and say what I wanted to have in the headlines of next day’s papers in Denmark.”

Nationality and culture

How do you look at the role of the President beyond the traditional one?

“The traditional role is trying to be alert to everything concerning Icelandic nationality and culture. The President should engender, among the people at large, a feeling of genuine mutual friendship. I try to talk personally to everybody when I meet groups. The President should be as close to the people as possible, for the office is first and foremost a symbol of national unity.”

What is it in Icelandic culture that, in your opinion, should be especially cultivated and stressed?

Vigdís Alongside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“The preservation of our language and a steady stimulation of all creative efforts. In many ways we are unique in our creativity. If we look after our culture as well as our children, we consciously strive for what all humanity yearns for: peace. Nobody can believe in the future without working for peace. Wishful thinking is not enough. We have to follow closely what is happening in the world and state categorically: This we want but that we do not want. We have to demand that all the money now squandered on armaments and international power politics should be channelled to make use of the marvellous scientific discoveries of modern times in the service of the hungry and the needy. We have found the means to halt the population explosion. I refuse to believe that we cannot find the means to halt the greed for power. I am an idealist on behalf of children. Those jockeying for power around the world have only ten or twenty years to go. They must not leave the coming generations with a world threatened by annihilation.”

The small nations of the world have a future.

“Youth should protest instead of losing hope and taking refuge in drugs to dull the senses. Only a lack of will to live can make a person try to dull the senses in order to survive.” Do you think the small nations of the world have a future, considering the so-called brain drain, which deprives them of their ablest minds and best-educated citizens?

“I feel convinced that the small nations of the world have a future once they realize that by sticking together they are a major power. It may not be possible to stop brain drain entirely, but it can be diminished if the small nations co-operate and exchange talents for certain tasks, just as farmers share tractors. Nordic co-operation is a case in point. The Nordic countries are a cultural superpower, no doubt about it. They have produced a culture which reaches the masses, and publish newspapers and weeklies which enhance sensibilities and rational thinking.”

You have been asked to open the Scandinavia Today exposition in Washington D.C. next September on behalf of the Nordic heads of state?

“Yes, I am proud to have been asked to do that and am very much looking forward to the occasion. This is a dream I have long known would come true. I am proud of being a spokeswoman for all the Nordic countries on that occasion, and it is a great compliment to us that they have this confidence in me, underlining the fact that Icelanders were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, nearly 900 years ago.”

From the Archives: The 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland

fischer spassky iceland 1972

On July 11, 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky met in Reykjavík for the 1972 World Chess Championship. The match, lasting 6 weeks, took place in Laugardalshöll and was one of the first major chess tournaments to be televised.

It was much more than just a chess match, however. Fischer’s victory over Spassky ended a decades-long monopoly the Soviet Union held over the international chess scene. At a time when the tensions of the Cold War seemed to be lessening, the match represented a reescalation of East v. West chess diplomacy. Fischer was especially notorious for his flamboyant character and personal excesses, even at one point refusing to play because the prize money wasn’t enough. Where the Soviet chess school emphasized their dominance as a victory of their system, Fischer represented Western greed and egotism, but also genius and creativity.

During its close to 60 years of publishing history, Iceland Review has covered major milestones in Icelandic history. Here, we revisit our original coverage of this historic match, written by Gísli Sigurðsson that thrust Iceland onto the world stage. 

“Now began the intermezzo, the real war of nerves. Bobby Fischer failed to arrive in Iceland, and the days slipped by. He had been seen in New York, and it became known that Kissinger himself, Nixon’s righthand man, had been called in to induce Bobby to come to Iceland for the good of the country.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The match took place in Laugardalshöll

“Fischer was like a man who does not dare to take the plunge. So somebody had to give him a push. A wealthy chess fan in Britain quite unexpectedly stepped into the breach. He offered to double the prize money, and Fischer could himself decide whether the victor was to receive all of it or to share it. ‘A magnanimous gesture,’ said Fischer, adding that now he had no option but to go to Iceland.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky mounts his attack

“When the challenger failed to appear in the afternoon, a press conference was held. Dr. Max Euwe, President of the International Chess Federation, was very depressed. ‘I have two alternatives’, he said, ‘One is to cancel this match here and now. The other is to postpone it for two days’. Dr. Euwe chose the second alternative, to a great extent out of sympathy for the Icelandic Chess Federation, which had been put to much expense and trouble. The atmosphere was dismal; people were convinced that the whole thing was off.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Arranging the match proved quite dramatic

“But Fischer arrived at the eleventh hour, or maybe a little later. He hurried out of the plane into the car, rather like a hijacker expecting a hail of police bullets. The war of nerves was at its height, and Fischer seemed to be a bundle of nerves. He had come to fulfil an old promise — to beat the Russians. Now they had the next move: No match unless Fischer makes a formal apology. Much to everyone’s surprise this was soon forthcoming: ‘Dear Boris. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for my indecent behaviour by not attending the inaugural ceremony.'”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer deep in thought

“The air was full of tension in the hall on Tuesday, 11th July. The world champion appeared exactly on the minute and played his first move. The clock ran for seven minutes. Then at last Fischer stalked onto the stage. People relaxed. And immediately in this game the challenger’s aggressiveness was revealed; people expected a very complicated position to develop with such chessmasters. But Fischer took all the pieces it was possible to take. However, in the 29th move he bit off more than he could chew. This was Fischer’s most serious slip in the whole match. That move cost him the first game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky preparing his attack

“The world champion maintained his dignity and sat down punctually to the second game. Time passed, and people became restless. The challenger did not appear. Then it became known that he did not intend to do so, and Fridrik Olafsson, Icelandic Grandmaster, tried to save the situation by talking to him in his hotel room, but he was not to be moved. People once more became pessimistic. The match appeared to have reached an impasse, and Fischer had even booked a flight back to America. The arbiters awarded a win to Boris Spassky in the second game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The opponents shake hands

“The difference in the behaviour of the contestants was obvious. Spassky brought to mind an Olympian champion athlete when he walked in; he sat perfectly straight in his seat, always calm, looking relaxed, and he considered the situation from a certain distance. Fischer, on the other hand, shambled onto the stage in great strides; his gait was uneven, and his clothes always seemed to be crumpled.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer out on the town after the match

“But the dramatic moment when the world champion laid down his King for the last time never arrived. Instead, Boris Spassky telephoned to the arbiter. He seemed to be very tired. He would surrender the 21 st game, he said.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer and Spassky review the match

“Robert James Fischer received this news quietly. While the audience applauded as never before, he signed something for the arbiter, then strode out into the rain where his bodyguard was awaiting the new world champion who had finally beaten the Russians. It was a smiling Bobby Fischer who took a dip in one of Reykjavik’s swimming pools that night with the World Press on his heels. ‘Iceland is a great country, I like it here.'”