There's a growing suspicion that the U.S. men's basketball team--given three months of training--would have had an easier time winning gold in team handball. The game features appealing elements of various sports: leaping, dribbling and court sense from hoops; penalty shots and power plays from hockey; acrobatic goalkeeping from soccer; contact from football; and the chance to whip a ball at somebody, a la dodgeball. But as an amalgam, played in a space 43% longer than a basketball court, handball is as foreign to Americans as dining at 1 a.m.
There are only 800 registered U.S. players in team handball (simply handball in the rest of the world)--although, as U.S. Team Handball executive director Mike Cavanaugh notes, it was Hakeem Olajuwon's first sport growing up in Nigeria, and John Havlicek's son, Chris, almost made the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Alas, this is a slender reed on which to hang your hopes. "The big issue is the name," says Dawn Allinger Lewis, a member of the women's '96 Olympic team. "You say, 'I play team handball,' and people think you play on a racquetball court."
The sport, which traces its roots to ancient Greece and Rome and to the game of Fangballspiel, took its current form in Germany and Scandinavia in the late 19th century. There are pro leagues in Europe (Lewis says that top Norwegian pros can earn $200,000 a year), and European nations have won 42 of the 48 Olympic handball medals. The U.S. hasn't won any and didn't even qualify for the Sydney or Athens Games.
After fast-breaking like the 1963 Boston Celtics in a 29-21 win against Angola last Saturday, the French women pondered the team handball potential of American basketball players. "It would be difficult because it's not quite the same skills. There's much more contact," said Estelle Vogein. "But if they try it, they will improve in four years. Then we will see them in 2012." --Michael Farber