Previewing the Sports You Know Nothing About: Handball

The U.S. isn't competing, and the Soviet Union has the most all-time medals, so why watch?

Jul 26, 2012
Outside Magazine
handball 2012 Olympics London

Handball.    Photo: Thomas Faivre-Duboz/Flickr

You throw a ball into a goal and try to do it more times than the other team. Each team has six outfield players and one goalie. The goalie can use all body parts to save shots and is the only player allowed within a 20-foot arc that surrounds the goal. Outfield players are allowed three steps while holding the ball; otherwise, they can advance it by dribbling or passing. The court is 44x22 yards, and each game is played in two 30-minute halves. The 12 teams are divided into two six-team groups. The top four teams in each group advance to the eight-team single-elimination playoff. The medal dates are August 11 (women’s) and 12 (men’s). 

Men’s handball debuted at the Olympics in 1936, but then disappeared until 1972, and it’s been in every competition since. Women’s handball has been in the Olympics since 1976. South Korea’s seven total medals (two golds) are more than any other country. The Soviet Union has the most golds (four) and is second in total medals (six). Yugoslavia is third in total medals (five). If a country doesn’t exist, can anyone hear when its handball team doesn’t fall down in a forest or whatever? 

France, defending World and Olympic champions, are the men’s favorites, but they stumbled to an 11th-place finish in January’s European championships. Denmark, the European champion, should also challenge for gold, behind 24-year-old Mikkel Hansen, reining World Player of the Year and unofficial titleholder of the greatest beard-mane combination in the Olympics. On the women’s side, Norway is the defending Olympic and World champion, and they’re led by Heidi Løke, the 29-year-old World Player of the Year. Russia, Denmark, and France should also contend for medals.

No. Neither the women’s nor men’s teams qualified. But if you’re unsure about tuning in to an event without any Americans, heed the words of the president of the International Handball Federation, Dr. Hassan Moustafa: “Handball is a diamond, which should be polished in order to become brilliant.” Also: all games will be played at a place called “Basketball Arena,” so there’s that, too.

A Handball Nation With a Basketball Problem,” by Gregg Gethard

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