Greenland handball
Greenland Handball Federation

Greenland seizes sports moment as Iceland plays in World Cup

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Ingi Olsen may be a bit biased, but he asserts that this is, by far, the biggest sporting event that Greenland has hosted.

“They said yesterday that about half of the population is watching,” the national team head coach said by phone.

And that was just a group-stage game.

Greenland is hosting the Pan American Men’s Handball Championships for the first time. Matches air live on national TV in primetime and are archived on its YouTube page (even the ones not involving Greenland).

None bigger than Saturday and Sunday. Greenland, not all that surprisingly, advanced to the semifinals after beating Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Canada (and losing to Brazil) in its six-team group.

Every win and the one loss were expected. Handball is a national sport in Greenland, which has never played in a Pan Am final. Brazil is the defending Pan Am champion.

Greenland gets favored Argentina in Saturday’s semifinals (6 p.m. in Inussivik, the 1,000-seat indoor arena in Nuuk, streaming on Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa’s YouTube page).

The U.S. is not in this tournament after it failed to qualify in April. Greenland, which has about 60,000 people (one-fifth the size of Iceland), beat the U.S. at Pan Ams in 2014 and 2016. (The Greenland women also beat the U.S. in 2015.)

The U.S. has zero Olympic handball medals and an 8-39-1 all-time record in Olympic men’s and women’s play. It hasn’t qualified a men’s or women’s handball team for the Games since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996.

Still, that Greenland can outperform the U.S. in any Olympic sport is an achievement. Credit Denmark, which has four Olympic handball titles.

“A lot of Danish people living in Greenland, teachers and so on, they brought the handball to Greenland, 30, 40 years ago,” said Greenland assistant coach Rasmus Larsen, who said he played in the first 110 matches for Greenland’s national team in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Olsen, a 49-year-old coach who played for the Faroe Islands’ national team and moved to Greenland in 2012 for a job with BankNordik, conceded that his Greenland team will likely be playing in Sunday’s third-place game rather than the final.

Semifinal opponent Argentina reached all 10 Pan Am finals between 1996 and 2014, winning six of them, and was the only North or South American nation to qualify for the last two Olympics.

“We would win once in a 100,” versus Argentina, Larsen said.

Playing for third place is OK. The Pan American Championships are a qualifier for the 2019 World Championships. The top three teams from Pan Ams advance to worlds, which will be hosted by Germany and Denmark. By winning either of its last two games, Greenland will qualify for worlds for the first time since 2007. That’s the goal.

Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark and does not field its own Olympic team. That could change if the Faroe Islands wins its fight for Olympic recognition. Greenland and Faroe Islands athletes have competed for Denmark at the Summer and Winter Games.

“Greenland has, at the moment not any activity going on, regarding to be recognized as an IOC member,” Carsten Olsen, secretary-general of Greenland’s sports confederation, said in an email. “But it is a big wish and we are preparing, in small steps, to be ready if we one day can be recognized.”

Greenland Handball
Via Greenland Handball Federation

For now, the highest level athletes representing Greenland can reach are some sports’ world championships (but not the World Cup; Greenland is not recognized by FIFA) or the Arctic Winter Games.

Greenland hosted the Arctic Winter Games for the first time in 2016, which Olsen called the biggest event in Greenland’s history until this month’s Pan Am Championships. Medal events included dog mushing and the finger pull.

Early forms of handball, an Olympic medal event since 1972, date to ancient Greece. In ancient Greenland, the Inuits would contest village-wide games using a blown-up animal’s bladder or a moss-stuffed skin.

“Handball is still the most popular sport in Greenland,” Olsen said, “but futsal is coming rapidly.”

The Greenland men’s national team includes about 10 players from Nuuk, the capital, another three living elsewhere in Greenland, one in the Faroe Islands and a few who play club ball in Denmark, Olsen said.

“We just went to see the prime minister to have some dried fish and some Greenlandic food, and he had some presents for us,” Larsen said Friday, adding that the PM attended their last two games.

The highlight of Pan Ams thus far was a 31-29 win on Monday over Uruguay, the biggest threat to Greenland finishing second in the group behind Brazil to reach the semifinals. Uruguay tied it 29-all with two minutes left in the 60-minute game before Greenland scored on consecutive possessions, including a clock-expiring dagger from Miki Heilmann.

Players and fans — Olsen estimated 1,500 squeezed into Inussivik, but the official figure was 1,920 — celebrated while the traditional post-game music played — “Kalaallit Nunaat Pillugu” by Julie Berthelsen, so famous in Greenland she goes by one name. Julie also sang the national anthem for Greenland’s first match of Pan Ams.

“One hour after the [Uruguay] match was finished, almost nobody left the building,” Olsen said. “They were celebrating with the boys, the victory, as if we already came to the world championship.”

Iceland’s tourism board has a banner to the right of the arena scoreboard with its slogan, “Inspired by Iceland,” peering to the court.

While much of the world is fixated on that nation’s soccer story, those in Greenland, especially those standing and waving the Erfalasorput below that advertisement, are rallying around their handball team. The differences are many — starting with sport visibility and revenue, plus the lands’ identities (“Iceland are vikings,” Larsen said. “Greenland are Inuit. It’s a different way of life.”)

But there are also similarities.

“They’re playing with their heart, a small country against the rest of the world,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to copy the spirit.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Greenland Handball
Greenland Handball Federation

Swim meet canceled after FINA’s threat to ban athletes

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GENEVA (AP) — Amid growing conflict between swimmers and their world governing body, an international swimming meet was canceled on Thursday after threats to ban athletes who took part seeking better prize money.

The Italian swim federation called off the Dec. 20-21 competition it was organizing in Turin, saying it acted to protect athletes from FINA.

The Turin meet was linked to a proposed International Swimming League, a privately run operation which aims to operate outside FINA’s control and pay higher prize money.

“FINA declared the event ‘non-approved,’ threatening sanctions against the participating athletes,” Italian officials said in a statement.

FINA, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some Olympic champions have long criticized FINA, believing swimmers should be better rewarded, have more say in decisions, and could create their own union.

Olympic champion Adam Peaty of Britain wrote on Thursday on Twitter he was “incredibly disappointed” by the cancellation.

The politics involved will “galvanize swimmers, not break them,” wrote Peaty, who holds 50m and 100m breaststroke world records.

Peaty has previously supported Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu in her public criticism of FINA, and calls to create a swimmers’ union.

Italian organizers said Peaty, Hosszu and other Olympic champions including Chad le Clos of South Africa and Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden were due to take part in their 25-meter pool event. It was scheduled days after the short-course world championships being staged in Hangzhou, China.

The clash of events seemed to provoke FINA into finding more prize money for its worlds event in the smaller pool.

On Nov. 6, FINA added to its promised prize fund for China by almost doubling the total to $2.07 million.

FINA wrote to member federations on Oct. 30 warning of bans of up to two years for taking part in Turin.

However, a European Commission decision last year suggests swimmers could successfully challenge any attempt to limit their right to race and earn money.

The European Union’s executive arm ruled the International Staking Union in breach of anti-trust laws by threatening severe bans for speed skaters who wanted to compete in a South Korean-organized event in Dubai.

The ISU’s threats “also serve to protect its own commercial interests,” the European officials said.

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Simon Ammann believes ski jumping career end is near

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Simon Ammann, the most decorated active ski jumper with four Olympic gold medals, said it is hard to imagine competing beyond this season, according to Swiss newspaper Blick.

Ammann, 37, swept the individual Olympic titles in 2002 and 2010 to join retired Finn Matti Nykänen as the only four-time Olympic ski jumping champs.

In PyeongChang, his sixth Olympics, Ammann placed 11th and 13th, one month after making his first World Cup podium in nearly three years. He decided after those Winter Games that he would continue at least one more season, but has no plan to go all the way to a seventh Olympics in 2022, according to Blick.

Ammann has teased retirement since at least 2011 and even said going into the 2014 Sochi Olympics that he was “99 percent sure” they would be his final Games.

The now-father of two first gained crossover celebrity with his surprise Salt Lake City 2002 gold medals, his first wins in top-level international competition. The bespectacled Ammann’s victory screams and resemblance to Harry Potter helped land him on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and one of Europe’s biggest shows, sitting next to Shakira.

Fellow ski jumper Noriaki Kasai of Japan holds the Winter Olympic record of eight appearances. Kasai, 46, has said he plans to go for a ninth participation at Beijing 2022.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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