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Iceland’s strongman

The strongman, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, changed Iceland’s athletic standing on the world stage forever.

The 1980s were a defining time for Icelandic sport. It was during this decade that the Icelander Jón Páll Sigmarsson secured his international reputation as a legendary strongman, weightlifter, and bodybuilder.

Thanks to the combination of his superhuman athletic abilities and his charismatic on-screen personality, Jón Páll won the hearts of not only Icelanders but people around the world, who tuned in to see him win the World’s Strongest Man four times (in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990) and quip his catchy slogans such as: “Þetta er ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál! [This is no haul for John Paul!]”, delivered just before a deadlift.

Jón Páll was Iceland’s representative on the world sporting stage. The character he portrayed during competitions—a massive, roaring blonde-haired Viking—delighted people across the world, many of whom had heard little about Iceland before. At one event, a spectator called Jón Páll an Eskimo, to which he boomed in reply: “I’m not an Eskimo, I’m a Viking!” before lifting a 495kg cart. Underneath the fearsome exterior, however, Jón Páll was described as a reserved, polite and bookish person.

For Icelanders, Jón Páll was a hero because he made a big impact in international sports, despite being from a small and often sidelined island nation. Whether or not the Viking bravado was real, it was a hit with audiences and it gave Icelanders a sense of national pride at coming first in the world in something. Iceland’s population size and economic power limited it from ‘winning’ in traditional foreign policy.

Tragically, Jón Páll passed away from a heart attack in 1993, at the age of 32. His athletic achievements, as well as his personality, continue to be remembered fondly in Iceland today. His career also offers us a window into an important moment in Iceland’s self-definition as a nation on the world stage.

Larger than Life Movie, dir. Steingrímur Jón Þórðarson, Ský Productions (Iceland, 2006)

The text was written in October 2019.

Short bio of the volunteer:

My name is Hrafnkatla, usually known as Katla. I’m originally from Iceland but have also lived in Scotland. From October until May I’ll be interning at the University of Madeira in their heritage programme. I’m looking forward to experiencing a winter that doesn’t drop below 0 degrees Celsius!


Erasmus+ is a program of the European Commission embracing the fields of education, training, youth, and sports during the period 2014-2020. One of the major aspects is the cooperation between the different fields where the program acts, hence contributing for a diverse and rich Europe.

Amongst the several goals of the programme, the following are prioritised: the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, including the headline education target; the aims of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020), including the corresponding benchmarks; the sustainable development of Partner Countries in the field of higher education; the overall goals of the renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (2010-2018); the objective of developing the European dimension in sport, in particular grassroots sport, in line with the EU work plan for sport and the promotion of European values in accordance with Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union.

In order to achieve these goals, the Erasmus+ has several action policies. The Key Action 1 (KA1) is directed towards the mobility of people; Key Action 2 (KA2) for the cooperation for innovation and the interchange of good experiences; and Key Action 3 (KA3) which is for the support of reformation policies.

European Voluntary Service

Since 1991 the University of Madeira Students’ Union has developed a wide incentive policy for voluntary work. In 2013 the Students’ Union started the process to receive, send and coordinate Erasmus+ projects of the European Voluntary Service, in order to have a larger influence in the volunteering field. The Union received its first volunteer withing the ambit of a KA1 project in 2014. Many efforts have been done to allow young people from Madeira to take part in several initiatives in Europe, as well as propose several projects allowing young people from several countries to work in the projects of the Students’ Union of the University of Madeira. The main goal of the voluntary work is the contribution of the volunteers to the communities and places they will be staying, being their work not rewarded with payment.

We believe that the European Voluntary Service is a mechanism full of experiences, allowing the approved candidates to have the privilege of taking part in these projects and benefit the places and communities where these volunteers will be staying.

Since 2013, the University of Madeira Students’ Union has received volunteers that have collaborated in several activities and initiatives. Besides being able to enjoy a wonderful experience which will contribute to their personal and professional growth, they are able to contribute in a unique way to the community in which they are inserted and to join dozens of volunteers from the University of Madeira.