As I mentioned in my first post-Olympic comments, I spent time during the second week of the Games in the company of Americans sports fans watching handball on TV. Almost without exception, it was their first opportunity to get familiar with our sport. So it entailed an opportunity to do some ‘preaching’ and explaining, while also listening to often quite amusing comments from the handball novices around me.
The comments included a mixture of the type of reactions that I have constantly encountered during my soon 40 years in the U.S. and some more surprising observations. Generally speaking, handball met with the approval of the people around me, and their reactions showed that this was not just the result of politeness. As often happens, people got excited even without having any prior knowledge of the teams and without being able to appreciate the fine points. “This is such a typically American sport”, was a comment that I have become used to over the years. And “why are we not good at this”, is then the obvious follow-up question.
What people tended to appreciate was the amount of physical contact, especially the fact that this is very much part also of the women’s handball. “This would be something for women who like American football”, was one comment, and “it is nice to see a ball game where you can be successful without being extremely tall”, was the reaction of someone watching the Koreans. Having a goalkeeper, instead of just a basket, was a feature that some viewers felt added a dimension. And the continuous action, without a lot of time-outs, met with approval, as did the existence of the ‘advantage rule’, which some recognized from soccer.
It was also seen as helpful that the structure and action of the game is so straight-forward that it is easy to follow and enjoy also for a beginner. As someone commented, you can easily anticipate when a critical moment is coming up so that you have to focus a bit extra. But then some felt a bit lost in their appreciation for what constitutes an ‘offensive foul’, and I had to admit that the referees did not always manage to show the desired consistency. Similarly, I got comments to the effect that “the decisions about when to give a 2-minute punishment seemed a bit capricious”. This came from basketball or icehockey fans, who are more used to the notion that ‘a foul is a foul’.
Several of my ‘emerging handball fans’ seemed to assume that an Olympic sport such as handball “surely already was well established in the U.S.” and that it was their ‘fault’ for not having gotten to know it before. But they assumed it must be a relatively new sport at the Olympics, such as BMX or beach volleyball. They were astonished when I explained the longstanding traditions in Europe but also the comparatively feeble evolution in our country.
Someone offered the astute reflection that “of course soccer has a huge advantage, because so many of our immigrants these days bring that sport with them, while that does not seem to apply to handball”. I also heard the observation that the name ‘handball’ is a problem and ought to be changed. I gently reminded that this might not be so appropriate for Americans to suggest, considering our stubborn insistence on confusing people by referring to a certain sport as ‘football’ although 98% of the ball handling is with the hands… Others noted that the size of the court is a handicap, “as it does not fit into school gyms and would discourage schools from picking it up”. But ultimately, some of my new recruits noted that “as usual, it is likely to be a matter of money and good management”. Perhaps it will one day appear that at least one of my fellow viewers turns out to be a major philanthropist with a weak spot for handball…!