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Why can’t the US become more competitive in Olympic team handball?

A Norwegian player fires a shot during a preliminary-round game in women's team handball at the Tokyo Olympics.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO — It happens every four years (or in this case, five). On those rare occasions when handball is telecast in the United States during the Olympics, there is a fleeting fascination with the sport.

A bunch of rugged dudes run the floor, setting picks and trying to stop each other from firing a mini-soccer ball into the net. It looks like a sport that would attract many top-notch athletes because of its pace and physicality.

Yet the US is not even close to being an international factor in the sport. The American men and women have not qualified for the Olympics in handball since 1996, when they were automatic qualifiers in Atlanta. The men are 4-25-1 all-time in Olympic competition and had to withdraw from the 2021 World Handball Championships because of COVID-related issues.


The International Handball Federation ranks the US overall 64th in the world.

A sport that features football- and basketball-type athletes sprinting the floor to score goals with 80 mile-per-hour tosses has not caught on in America. The men’s and women’s programs fight for funding and lack facilities. They cannot attract capable players or reach a younger audience that may be interested in a nontraditional sport.

USA Handball CEO Ryan Johnson took his position in December, at a time that could be perceived as a low point for the federation. The men’s team hasn’t played in a competition since 2019 because of COVID-19 while the women’s program just named a new coach, hoping to spark more interest in the sport.

“You have Team USA, one of the most successful Olympic organizations in the world, this huge engine of producing medals,” Johnson said, “and you have handball as a sport internationally, incredibly mature, very successful all over Europe, millions of people playing the game, and somehow in the middle of that, you have USA Team Handball and it hasn’t gotten off the ground.


“That’s a lack of infrastructure. That’s a lack of people playing the game.”

The sport is wildly popular in Europe, especially in Germany, where the game originated. There are dozens of professional and club teams in Europe.

In the US, only a handful of colleges have handball programs, robbing Team USA of a key feeder system.

The Swedish goalkeeper tries in vain to stop a Denmark player from scoring during a men's preliminary-round game.Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Johnson spent the past seven years at USA Wrestling, helping market and promote that sport. His new position brings a more imposing challenge: selling a sport to a population that thinks handball is knocking a little rubber ball against a wall.

During non-Olympic times, it’s nearly impossible to find a team handball game on television in the US.

“As people see it in the Olympics, they say, ‘Why isn’t the US good at this?’ ” Johnson said. “We want to put the live games on [from Europe] for everybody to see it. Not just a one-off every four years, but there’s a consistent home for it. That hasn’t been done yet.

“Every four years there’s a groundswell of interest, and my hope with LA 2028 on the horizon is that there will be a little more action behind it.”

Johnson’s goal is for the US teams to be competitive when they are automatic qualifiers in Los Angeles in seven years. That will be a tall task.


Who actually plays handball for Team USA? Most of the men’s players are dual citizens who were raised in Europe. Only a handful were born and raised in the States.

Ty Reed played four years of football at Alabama as a wide receiver and won two national championships under coach Nick Saban. He comes from a handball family; his father was a 1988 US alternate, and his mother played on the ‘84 women’s team. So he decided to pursue the sport after his football career. When he was told that Team USA operated a residency program in nearby Auburn, Reed decided to try out.

Reed, who played professionally for SG Flensburg in Germany, said that at 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he’s one of the smaller players on the floor. Most of his teammates are at least 6-4. Two of the top players in the world, Nikola Karabatic of France and Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen, are 6-5 and 6-4, respectively.

“The guys in the middle, I’m talking about full-size NFL-type of people that play the game at the highest level, they’re big,” Reed said. “It’s very physical.

“That’s what everyone says — they see how physical it is and how fast-paced it is. We have the best talent pool in the world, why in the hell aren’t we dominating this sport? We have all the athletes capable of putting together an amazing team.”

Reed agrees with Johnson; the issue is the lack of youth programs that can teach the sport and build the skill level to compete with the elite countries. Countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Germany flourish because their players have been trained since they were preteens.


Johnson knows the key to success lies in the Generation Z athletes who embrace alternative, X Game style sports. And they are also entrenched in the video age, so USA Handball has produced a three-minute video explaining the sport, using highlights of European Handball Federation and Team USA games as examples.

When asked if there is a handball video game that could help popularize the sport among youth, Johnson pulled out an “EA Sports Handball ‘21,” but the physical edition of the game is not available in the US.

“All I want to do is attract younger players who can excel in the sport, and we can’t because there’s nowhere for them to play,” Reed said. “If handball became an official collegiate sport where Division 1 schools were allowed to offer scholarships, it would be through the roof because now there’s money involved and you’re giving athletes an opportunity to play.”

Instead, the sport struggles with funding, and there is no designated training facility for Team USA in the US.

Johnson said he’s reaching out to colleges individually about establishing club teams and working on television contracts that would telecast US handball games. It’s a long-term project, but there’s a seven-year window in which to make considerable improvement.


Reed said there is hope.

“If we could use this [Olympic] bump as a catalyst for that team in 2028, there’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “We have new coaches, new training, and new athletes.

“If we can get some funding and a regimented training schedule for our athletes, there’s no doubt in my mind we can be competitive in those Games. It’s all right there for us to be successful. There’s no reason handball shouldn’t be popular in America.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.