Balding, middle-aged men wearing headbands don’t dominate Olympic handball. The sport’s venue isn’t even the Coney Island boardwalk. Rather, team handball is a peculiar amalgamation of soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and basketball that doesn’t really resemble any of those sports at all. It’s probably most like water polo without the water.
Despite the game’s TV-friendly pace, handball’s sheer Euro-nuttiness means it gets less airtime than archery or equestrian (both the men’s and women’s gold-medal matches will be shown live on Sunday, though). A handball court is completely inscrutable to the layman, with lots of painted areas and dashed lines at random intervals. But what really troubles the American eye is that it seems like the players should be called for walking every time. Of course, that’s under basketball rules (well, perhaps not the NBA). In handball, you’re allowed three steps without dribbling. On the other hand, you’re only allowed to hold the ball for three seconds, so teams are ceaselessly running and passing, making the sport much more frenetic than hoops or soccer.
While play looks somewhat random, there are set positions. Middle backcourt players feed the tall and rangy shooters and the shorter, more agile wings, who contort themselves to convert sharply angled shots. The grunts are the circle runners who prowl the 6-meter line setting screens for the playmakers. No player can set foot inside the 6-meter circle that surrounds the net, meaning that shooters need to jump from outside the line and whip the small ball to score—imagine the old Roger Staubach jump pass, with more hangtime and herky-jerky body movement.
Scoring comes rather easily—if a clean shot is managed it almost always goes in, even with a usually helpless goalie on hand. There is likely strategy to handball, although it’s difficult to discern anything beyond screen, heave, and chuck. It mostly seems like the kind of game thrown together by bored gym teachers with nothing more to work from than a gym floor, some masking tape, a misshapen ball, and some kids with a severe sugar rush.
Actually, gym teachers did invent handball, although it’s not clear exactly which gym teachers. In Czechoslovakia, a college professor created hazena in 1906, although there are reports of soccer played with the hand by Slovaks as early as 1892. In Denmark, a teacher bored with soccer named Holger Nielsen came up with handbold in 1898. And in 1915, a German gymnastics teacher, Max Heiden, came up with torball, which apparently was essentially the same as handbold.
Professor Carl Schelenz of the Berlin Physical Education School was the synthesizer, taking a bit of handbold, a smidgen of torball, mixing in some basketball (introducing dribbling to his students), adapting a soccer pitch for his concoction, and meingott, team handball was born! The Scandinavians, with their frostier climate, decided the game was best suited to the gym.
Despite its Teutonic origins, handball has been thoroughly dominated by Eastern Europe—the men’s gold has been won by a Soviet or Slavic side in every games except one. (Properly, Germany and Croatia will play for gold this year.) The women’s game has been a little more globally balanced. The South Koreans stunned the USSR in a memorable gold-medal match in Seoul in 1988, then repeated in Barcelona.
The best-known women’s match in history, though, was a preliminary in Sydney between Norway and Denmark. For the first time in Olympic history, married partners—Camilla Andersen and Mia Hundvin—competed against each other. Hundvin’s Norway squad won the match, but Andersen and Denmark took the gold. But just three years later, the couple separated. There might not be any handball widows in the United States this weekend, but in Europe there are at least two.