IOC President Thomas Bach andIHF President Dr Moustafa in 2015 at a Beach Handball demonstration near IOC HQ. Beach Handball could be a welcome addition to the Olympic, but at what cost to the traditional, indoor court game?
All of the drama was removed from the IOC meeting last week in Lima, Peru, as it had been pretty much already decided to award the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games to Paris and LA, respectively. On social media and at the Handball-World site I was surprised and a bit puzzled, though, to see discussion regarding a decision by the IOC to add Beach Handball to the 2024 Olympic Sports Program. Puzzled, because I could find nothing anywhere in multiple online media sites regarding a possible IOC decision for the dozens of other sports that would also like inclusion in the Olympics.
So, when the IOC did discuss the 2024 Olympic Sports Program it was with very little fanfare that they simply announced that the 28 core sports approved for 2020 were also approved for 2024 and that additional sports and sporting disciplines for 2024 would be decided in the 2019-2020 time frame. First, the Paris Organizing Committee will propose their Sports Program and then the IOC will review and approve it. So Beach Handball could still possibly be included, but so could a number of other sports.
Following the IOC meeting, the IHF released a short memo highlighting this, but also tersely stated the following:
“Furthermore, in case beach handball should become an Olympic sport at some point, the IHF will not tolerate any reduction of the indoor handball quota at the Olympics as was stated in the media.”
What’s behind this statement? And, what does it mean for the likelihood of Beach Handball ever being added to the Olympics?
Sports, Disciplines and Events
To answer this question it’s important to first understand the definition of sport, discipline and event when it comes to the Olympic movement as they are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably. For context, there are “sports” like Handball, Volleyball, Aquatics and Athletics. And, then underneath those sports are “disciplines” which are distinct sub-sports that fall under the umbrella of the “sport”. Aquatics, for example, has swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and water polo all under its umbrella. Some sports like athletics and field hockey have just one discipline. But, sports can also add disciplines like volleyball, which added beach volleyball to go along with the traditional indoor court game. Finally, there are “events” which are competitions that result in a medal. A sport can have very few events like handball, which simply awards a medal for Women’s and Men’s team competitions or it can have a lot of events like Athletics which has 47 medal events. For more information, see this Wikipedia article: Link
Athlete Quotas and the Challenges of Hosting an Olympics
Secondly, it’s important to understand issues related to hosting the Summer Olympics. In particular, the sheer size of it. 28 sports and around 10,500 athletes. Venues for all those events and housing for all those athletes can be an enormous expense that only a few cities either want to or are capable of handling. It’s also the most marquee sporting event in the world and every sport wants in and the opportunity to showcase itself on the world’s biggest stage. The IOC recognizes this and that’s why they’ve put a cap on the total number of athlete participating at 10,500.
On the plus side, handball is already on the program. It hasn’t had to fight its way in like baseball and rugby have. Further, handball already has a pretty good sized contingent of athletes. Currently, handball has 336 athletes (168 Men, 168 Women). Or to put it another way, 12 Men’s and Women’s teams each with 14 athletes on the roster.
If beach handball were added to the program, though, about how many athletes would that entail? Well, it depends on how many teams and the roster size of those teams. Currently, the most commonly sized roster for international competition is 10 athletes. So, if the beach competition was added with 12 Men’s and 12 Women’s teams that would mean adding another 240 athletes. Combined with the 336 athletes for court handball that would push the total handball athlete contingent to 576. Only Athletics (1900) and Aquatics (1410) would have more athletes. Hey, I love the sport of handball, but I don’t think the rest of the sporting world and the IOC would be on board with that, because all those athlete slots would have to come from some other sport.
Reducing the numbers of teams and/or the roster size could reduce the number of athletes added for Beach Handball. Perhaps the bare minimum would be 8 Men’s and 8 Women’s teams with roster sizes of 8 athletes. That would add 128 athletes and raise the overall handball total to 464 athletes. Such a plus up, though, would still give handball the 6th largest contingent behind Athletics, Aquatics, Cycling (528), Rowing (526) and Soccer (504). Not as glaring, but still likely problematic.
More indicative of what might be accepted by the IOC would be a comparison of what volleyball and basketball plussed up when they added beach volleyball and 3 on 3 basketball respectively. Beach Volleyball has 96 participants and 3 on 3 basketball has 64 athletes. Both sports also top out at relatively lower numbers over all. Volleyball at 384 and basketball at 352 athletes.
Slicing and Dicing to Get Two Disciplines
So, how could one solve this numbers problem if the IOC is not on board with a significant increase in the total number of athletes under the Handball “sport” umbrella? Well, it can only be solved by shuffling the numbers in the 2 “disciplines” under the said umbrella. And, this would mean reducing the number of teams and/or the roster size of those disciplines.
Such a slice and dice combination could be done a number of different ways. One possibility would be to reduce the Men’s and Women’s court tournament to 8 teams each with rosters of 13 athletes for a total of 208 athletes. Then beach handball could also have Men’s and Women’s court tournaments with 8 teams each and rosters of 8 athletes for a total of 128 athletes. And, that would result in an overall handball contingent of 336 athletes, the same that is allocated currently.
Such an allocation would be a “transfer” of athletes that would not require a reduction of athletes from any other sport. There would still be some issues with the approval for a new venue, but one could envision simply expanding upon the already existing beach volleyball venue. Regardless, there would be no cries from another sport that they are losing athletes, which is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to address.
Laying Down a Marker
So, that’s the math behind the IHF memo. Loosely translated, the IHF memo essentially states,
“We like beach handball. We’d love to see it in the Olympics. But, only if absolutely nothing is done to change the size and structure of the currently existing court handball Olympic tournaments.”
So, the cry isn’t from another Olympic “sport”. The cry is from the other “discipline” within the same Olympic sport.
I guess Beach Handball could be added to the Olympic Sports Program with no reduction to Court Handball. Maybe the IOC will approve a significant plus up to the overall handball contingent at the expense of some other sport on the Olympic Program. Or maybe the IOC will shrug off its stated overall quota and let handball and other sports add more and more events to the Olympics. Hey, it’s a big party. What’s another 100 athletes here and another 200 there matter when an event already has 10,500 athletes?
Regardless, the IHF has laid down a marker stating their position. It’s not clear, though, whether that’s merely the view of the current IHF President or a position that has been vetted by the IHF Executive Committee or Congress. Further, one might cynically ask why the IHF has been aggressively promoting the inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics if it hadn’t fully considered the possible repercussions doing so might have on the traditional court game.
At least one nation, Germany, is expressing its view that the IHF should perform an evaluation on the two sporting disciplines so that strategic decisions can be made going forward. Not surprisingly, from my automatic translation of the German Federation posting, German President, Andreas Michelmann, appears to support in principle not sacrificing any court slots for beach handball, but would still like a full review of the matter.
And, for good reason. Regardless, as to one’s own personal feelings are concerning both disciplines this is a potentially a big opportunity for the sport that deserves further review. In part 2, I’ll do my own top level review and take a look at some of the pros and cons as it relates to the possible inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics.