RIO DE JANEIRO — How is handball not popular in the United States? Seriously. Why can’t the United States field internationally successful handball teams? If you watch one game, it’s abundantly clear that the United States is stocked with potential talent.
With elements of basketball, ice hockey, soccer and water polo (if you imagine it on land), handball is full of moves familiar to any American. Dribbling, fast breaks, penalty shots, give-and-go passes, turnovers, shot blocking, bounce passes, shots rifled from close range. And that describes only a few minutes of action I saw in the women’s quarterfinal game between two-time defending gold medalist Norway and its Scandinavian rival Sweden.
Handball is also fast paced, high scoring, and easy to pick up. More qualities that make it a natural fit for American athletes and sports fans.
For the uninitiated, here’s a handball primer: Each team consists of seven players, including one goalie. The object is to throw a leather-paneled ball (roughly the size of a large grapefruit) into a goal that is 2 meters high and 3 meters wide. To score, the player shooting the ball cannot step into the goal crease, which occupies a 6-meter radius around the goal. Players can’t hold the ball for more than three seconds or take more than three steps with it. So, good teamwork is essential.
And it’s not a game where time is wasted. If the referee decides the attacking team is not attempting to score, passive play can be called, resulting in a turnover. Each game consists of two 30-minute halves and lasts a total of about 90 minutes.
While watching Norway against Sweden, I kept wondering: What would happen if you taught handball fundamentals to a bunch of high school basketball players? I’m not talking kids destined for Division 1 scholarships. You’d never stop them from dreaming of the NBA. But what about young, solid athletes, boys and girls, with good height who know how to move with a ball in their hands? My guess: You’d have the beginnings of a rich, Olympic handball tradition in the United States. And you’d open a whole new world of athletic opportunity.
They play the sport professionally in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Spain, and France. The Norwegian women’s national team is revered, iconic at home and among handball fans around the globe. (I’ll acknowledge part of what made Norway vs. Sweden play so addictively fun to watch was the group of about 20 European male reporters beside me who hung on every break down court, cringed at every turnover, and marveled at every kick save.)
Norway dominated the action Tuesday night, won 33-20, and advanced to the semifinal.
The Norwegian scoring was led by Stine Bredal Oftedal (six goals on seven shots), Heidi Loke and Camilla Herrem (both with five goals on seven shots). The main Norwegian goalkeeper, Kari Aalvik Grimsbo saved 18 of 32 shots on goal. That she saved any was impressive, since they rocket in from such ridiculously close range. It was amazing she could pick up the ball and react in time.
Or, maybe much of it was instinctive reflexes, maybe you don’t think or see, just react. A video on handball goalie drills I checked out seemed to confirm that. The young goalies in the clip were blindfolded as a coach threw balls at them from about 6 feet away. Again, how is this not a bigger sport in the United States? I know three boys, ages 3, 5 and 7, who would love being blindfolded and having handballs chucked at them. Seriously.
But the United States has played in the Olympic men’s tournament only six times — 1936, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, and 1996 (qualifying then as the host nation) — and placed no higher than sixth. And that was at the 1936 Berlin Games. The US women’s team has competed in the Olympics four times, but not since 1996. The squad finished as high as fifth in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Check out the International Handball Federation rankings and the US men’s team is 38th, a few spots below Morocco and a couple places above Greenland, and the US women’s team is 25th, just ahead of Tunisia and Montenegro.
There’s no mystery behind those rankings. If you go to the USA Team Handball website, a block-lettered message says that the organization “is looking for talented athletes.” The good news (I hope): The US team is trying to capitalize on handball interest generated by the Olympics and holding tryouts in October and December.
Maybe a little exposure will go a long way.
My interest in handball was piqued when I met Einar Riegelhuth Koren at a Rio metro station. He’s a former member of the Norwegian men’s national team and husband of women’s Olympic team player Linn-Kristin Riegelhuth Koren and passionate about the game. When not competing for Norway’s Olympic team, Koren makes a good living as a professional handball player in her home country.
Einar said the sport is big, really big all across Scandinavia. Men’s and women’s players are sports celebrities with devoted followers. On Tuesday, Norway’s fans came to the match ready with flags and Viking hats.
Maybe in four years, there will be some American flag waving at handball at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Or, more likely, Americans, once again, will (re)discover handball at the next Olympics and, once again, wonder why the United States isn’t out there competing.