Iceland’s culture of accountability

I have entirely favorable memories of Iceland — I’d like to go back someday. But then I get this news that sends mixed messages. The national men’s football team is a horror off the field.

Arnarsdottir told national broadcaster RUV that she and another woman were sexually assaulted in a club in Reykjavík by a well-known player from the Icelandic national team in September of 2017. Both women were left injured and filed police complaints the next day, she said. Arnarsdottir’s family also informed the soccer federation and her parents spoke to Bergsson directly, she added.

The allegations threw Bergsson and the soccer federation into a crisis and put new attention on similar accusations against current and former players on Iceland’s national team. Those accounts include allegations that some players perpetrated a gang rape roughly 10 years ago.

But wait! There’s more! The chair of the Football Association of Iceland had declared that there hadn’t ever been any reports of sexual assaults by the team. Oh, this is familiar: the president of the James Randi foundation also tried to claim that there hadn’t been any reports of harassment at their annual meeting, and boy, did that backfire when women raised their hand to say that they had filed reports. Was the organization in the habit of sweeping any unflattering accusations under the rug?

You can guess what happened one day after the denial.

One day after that interview on national television, Thorhildur Gyda Arnarsdottir spoke out on the same network to say Bergsson’s denial was false, saying that both he and the federation were well informed about an incident she reported four years ago.

You might be thinking there’s nothing like a mixed message in this story — it’s all bad. But there is one positive outcome.

The entire board of Iceland’s soccer federation has abruptly resigned after being accused of mishandling allegations of sexual assault committed by players on the national team — and of covering up at least one alleged incident. The board also issued an apology to the victims, saying it believes them and promising to do better.

Iceland seems to have a culture of accountability. Just to remind you, 40 years ago they had a massive economic crash, and they responded by throwing those responsible in jail.

Unlike all other nations with capitalist-run economies, Icelanders refused to bail out the criminal bankers. Parliament passed emergency legislation to take over the major banks domestic operations and established new banks to handle them. The government, however, did not take over any of the foreign assets or obligations. Those stayed with the original banks gone bankrupt.1

Folk got behind recovery. Many politicians now listened to the people and refused to cut back on social services. People utilized their natural resources to attract the tech industry. Commercial fishing remained strong. The tourist industry bloomed. The International Monetary Fund conceded that Iceland “surpassed pre-crisis output levels”.

Best of all, Icelanders jailed the criminal bankers. By early 2016, 26 bankers had been sentenced to a total of 74 years in prison. Charges ranged from breach of fiduciary duties to market manipulation and embezzlement (thievery). The average sentence was from four to five and one-half years.

See? They do things right. Let’s hope their football team can respond properly and do better.


  1. hillaryrettig1 says

    We’ve been watching Rita on Netflix, a show about an antiheroish elementary school teacher in Denmark. One of the most interesting things about it is seeing a school system that actually works: where the teachers are well-paid and respected, and where they’re actually given the resources to do their jobs. Watching from here in the US, it’s almost utopian. But it’s just Denmark.

    Also, the schools, though not fancy by US standards, are in good shape and good repair. The buildings are simple but filled with light from big windows, and also filled with kid-centric things like bean bag chairs everywhere.

    So much good judgment and choices…in Scandinavia.

  2. whheydt says

    Re: hiiaryrettig1 @ #1…
    And a former schoolteacher would up as president of the country, Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

    (It’s also notable, but not surprising, that in the Icelandic press, the first time a person in mentioned, their full name is given. After that, they are referenced by first name only. Makes sense in a country that doesn’t really have “family” names. It’s all still patronymics.)

  3. Bruce says

    The big crash in Iceland was in 2008, not 40 years ago. The article used 1980 merely as a baseline comparison date.

  4. Snidely W says

    Am I missing something math-wise here?:

    26 bankers had been sentenced to a total of 74 years in prison. Charges ranged from breach of fiduciary duties to market manipulation and embezzlement (thievery). The average sentence was from four to five and one-half years.

    I get an average of about 2.85 years.
    And that seems kinda light, all things considered.

  5. says

    That was 14 years ago, not 40, as Bruce points out. That’s important because the same crash affected most of the world including the U.S., which experienced a deep and long recession, but the bankers here were not held accountable, even by the Obama administration that took office at that time.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    In Sweden, the (conservative-led !) government made sure the state (the taxpayers) got back most of the money used to bail out the banks.
    This is what you get when the middle class dominate politics and the political parties get money from their members and from the state, not from shady lobbyists.
    I remember well how Obama brushed off a question of why USA did not handle the bank crisis like Sweden.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    The entire board of Iceland’s soccer federation has abruptly resigned … promising to do better.

    Doesn’t the first part of that render the second part moot?

  8. John Morales says

    Snidely @4, they probably meant median (typical) rather than average; often used interchangeably in ordinary language.

  9. numerobis says

    Snidely W: most of the world considers the US norms of extremely long jail terms with rampant sexual abuse to be just another example of the US being a backwards country. Harsh sentences don’t help anyone, they’re just for revenge.

  10. says

    @numerobis — Long sentences keep dangerous people off the streets where they can’t harm anyone, and 20+ in a federal prison should be the bare minimum for abusers, rapists, and other such predatory scum.

  11. says

    @#10, WMDKitty — Survivor:

    Until it turns out that the cops lied in court under oath (which turns out to be ridiculously common) or the DNA evidence was a lie (as the FBI admitted was the case with practically all hair-based evidence about a decade ago, resulting in a huge number of retrials and pardons) and the prisoners were actually innocent and now have had their lives ruined, probably for good. And of course those prisoners don’t get to vote, and are ineligible for jobs with a huge swath of companies. But why should we care about that? Everybody knows Americans hate justice and freedom, right? You certainly do, at least.

    And, of course, your long sentence fetish only applies to the poor, not the rich, who get a slap on the wrist. After all, living in a slum is practically a crime, but owning a slum is a virtue. Steal some groceries or some clothes because you’re too poor to buy them, especially if you’re not white, and you’ll got one of those long sentences, like Guy Frank who spent 20 years in prison for shoplifting two shirts. Order your employees to fraudulently foreclose on mortgages, causing bankruptcy and disaster for hundreds or thousands of people, though, and… well, if you’re very, very unlucky, you might be one of the three people out of the entire population prosecuted for it by the Democrats. (But only if you aren’t in one of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks, of course. Obama’s action on those guys was to give a televised speech about how it was okay for them to get bonuses for performance in the same year they had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Because the Democrats are so much more ethical than Republicans, and aren’t afraid to prove it.)

    Besides, if we didn’t keep sending people to prison for decades, why, the prison slave labor industry might collapse, and businesses would have to pay fair wages for things. Without the ability to pay its workers a tiny fraction of minimum wage, Wal-Mart could never undercut mom and pop stores around the country, and that would clearly be incompatible with the American way of life. We love UNICOR. We love private prisons so much that our elected representatives own stock in them! Long live long sentences! How else could we ever turn our country into an authoritarian nightmare police state?

  12. strangerinastrangeland says

    Iceland is a great country to live in and there is much to adore in it’s culture, society and it’s people. However, the picture that people abroad have of it is very often through rose-tinted glasses – and there is definitely no culture of accountability here (sadly).
    The resignation of the board of the Football Association was the right step, but only after being caught lying on live TV and a lot of public pressure (and by the clubs and sponsors). Also, the CEO of the association still refuses to resign and the board, which will despite resignation be in charge for at least another month, refuses to fire her.

    Regarding the financial crisis of 2007/8, unfortunately those responsible were not put in jail as is often claimed. Yes, quite a number of bankers were sentenced, but those were for crimes that are punishable in most countries, like insider trading and fraud, linked to but not necessarily causing the crisis. And most of the bankers were in jail for only a few months with the rest of their sentences suspended. Just a few months ago, some of them even got their sentences overturned by the court and be given financial compensation. The politicians who allowed the disaster to happen due to their liberalization and privatization of the finance sector got out scotch free, either stayed in politics or got cushy positions afterwards. I can’t remember anyone of them taking responsibility or showing remorse.

    Unfortunately, there are many more cases in Iceland where accountability was not shown by politicians or other public figures: Five high ranking parliamentarians, including a former prime minister, were recorded in public to make very vile remarks about female colleagues and handicapped people; still in power. The head of the conservative party and finance minister was involved in the Panama paper tax evasion scandal, still in power. A minister closely linked to a company that bribed officials in Nigeria to plunder their fishing grounds, still in power (as is the CEO of the company). Nobody took responsibility and showed honor and – sadly – the Icelandic society accepts tis too easily.