I was watching the summer Olympics a while back and as I was flipping between sports channels to find an event I wanted to watch I was immediately struck by a game I had never seen before. The players were running around on a court that had a large goal at each end and they were trying to get a ball the size of a grapefruit into the goal. Even though it looked a great deal like soccer I knew it could not be soccer for two reasons. The first reason is that even I know that indoor soccer is not an Olympic event. All Olympic soccer is played outdoors and the game I was watching was definitely being played in an arena. The second reason was that they were using their hands to move the ball around and when someone would use their feet they were penalized. I am no soccer expert but that seemed to be completely opposite from soccer. The game was extremely exciting, and more physical as far as contact between players than I am used to seeing in an Olympic event, and I was extremely interested in finding out what game it was. When they were getting ready to cut to a commercial break they announced that it was team handball and I was floored. This was nothing like the handball I was familiar with and this game was very exciting to watch. I was also surprised to find out, after doing a little research, that team handball is a very old game and has been played for years in Europe and other parts of the world.
Team handball has been played in some form since as far back as the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans. The modern version was formalized in the late 1800’s as countries such as Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden not only began publishing their official team handball rule books but they also began holding team handball tournaments. Team handball made its debut in the summer Olympics in 1936 at the insistence of Adolf Hitler as field team handball but it was soon removed from the list of Olympic events following the fall of Hitler in Germany. Team handball was reinstated as an Olympic event in 1972 and women’s team handball was added in 1976. Germany was the first gold medal winning country for team handball in 1936 and the United States has never won any medal in team handball competition.
Team handball was originally created to be played on an outside field and for years that is where the competition took place. As much as one on one handball looks like racquetball without the racquets, outdoor team handball looks like the exact opposite of soccer where everyone has to use their hands and kicking the ball with your feet is forbidden. Olympic team handball is played indoors on a court that is 40 meters long by 20 meters wide. It is not uncommon for teams to score in excess of 20 goals per game in team handball partly because the referees use penalty throws as the first form of punishment for causing a foul and penalty throws in team handball are almost always a guaranteed goal.
The Olympic games are a constant source of amazement to me and in this case they introduced me to the ancient sport of team handball. It is always interesting to see something that has existed for thousands of years but yet most Americans have no idea it exists. I hope it does start to catch on here in America because handball is a very diverse sport.