An ode to team handball, the best Olympic sport Americans don't watch

July 25, 2021

France vs. Croatia in men's team handball, 2019

Among the Olympic sports that Americans generally don’t watch, even quadrennially — I.E., not basketball, gymnastics, swimming, track, and the like — there is one I know would be wildly popular if only an American team would qualify for the tournament: team handball.

As a sort of cross between hockey, lacrosse, and basketball, it’s a wildly telegenic game, but more important, the basic rules and principles are easy to pick up, and I’m still a little surprised it hasn’t caught on as a niche rec league sport in American cities and colleges.

The handball court is 40 meters long by 20 meters wide (about 131 by 65 feet), which is too big for indoor play in most American gyms. However, basketball courts are typically 84 to 90 feet long and 50 feet wide, and they already have a semicircle three-point line at just under 20 feet for high school or just under 21 feet for men’s college basketball, which can act as the goalkeeper’s crease. For low-level recreational athletes, those markings should be sufficient. Set up goals at either end of the court, acquire some proper balls, and you’re ready to go.

I’m a quadrennial handball fan, so I’m hardly an expert on this, but it certainly seems like USA Team Handball has the right idea in providing equipment to youth physical education programs and trying to nurture involvement at the college level. There’s no reason it can’t be at least as popular as ultimate frisbee within a few short years, and I can imagine scenarios where it quickly becomes kind of like kickball, where virtually every American plays it at school, and rec leagues for adults pop up, only there’s already infrastructure overseas for high-level professional play.

Again, the best thing for team handball in the U.S. would be if a national team qualified for the 2024 Olympics and made a run. That kind of momentum leading up to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles would, potentially, create conditions for enthusiastic live crowds. Imagine, say, Zion Williamson and Trae Young in the stands cheering on the U.S. men or women?

The next-best thing would be if an American became one of the better players in the world. Again, I’m no expert, but I have an easier time imagining some dude who topped out in high school basketball and baseball (or whatever) discovering an aptitude and passion for handball while in college, dominating the rec league levels here, then, in a fit of arrogance heading overseas to give it a shot, somehow catching on with a mid-level club, and then working his way up to something approximating stardom.

All this is to say, you should watch team handball, either on YouTube or in these Olympics, and if anyone wants to start a rec league in San Francisco, I’m interested in finding out if my shoulder could hold up. If not, I’ll try playing goalkeeper.

(Photo: "Team France against Croatia during Handball World Championship 2019 IHF" by dronepicr. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)