What is a continent?

In recent time I have followed with interest the initiative of USA Team Handball to have the issue of splitting up the PanAmerican Team Handball Federation (PATHF) put on the table. For many reasons, I think this is a good initiative, so my comments below are not intended to provide arguments against it, or even to make me the ‘devil’s advocate’ on this issue. Rather, I am more inclined to point out the complexities of the issue and how difficult it is likely to be to achieve success.

First I should emphasize that there is no such thing as a standardized definition of the concept of a continent in the world of sports. For instance, the International Olympic Committee does not insist that all sports use the same definition. It is really up to each international federation to decide what suits its circumstances. Just as an example, Kazakhstan is in Asia as far as handball is concerned, while it is part of Europe in soccer. Another example is Australia, which in most sports is the ‘superpower’ of the otherwise modest Oceania continent but in soccer has been allowed to join Asia. In fact, they have recently qualified as an Asian representative for the 2010 World Cup in soccer.

So while one might try to point to soccer and the CONCACAF vs. CONMEBOL configuration as an argument, as this ‘splits off’ 10 South American countries from the rest of the Panamerican continent, it does not really show that this approach is more ‘correct’ than the PATHF concept that covers the whole continent in one entity. It merely shows that such a model seems viable, even if the parallels are not so strong. First, CONCACAF came about not as a breakaway from the rest of the continent but as an amalgamation of a previously existing North American federation and a Central American/Caribbean federation almost 50 years ago. Moreover, CONCACAF has 35 member countries, not counting some French and Dutch territories. So it is really a strong grouping with long traditions.

What would then be the practical advantages of a change? It is then necessary to look a bit at the history and the politics of handball in our continent. Briefly put, the early influence came from Europe and was primarily affecting countries such as the U.S, Canada, Mexico and Argentina. Much of the early influence was German. Spain did not become a handball power until relatively recently, so there was no Spanish impetus, as is otherwise often the case in Latin America. Brazil and Cuba gradually became continental powers, but were not part of the picture in the early going. So the influence of the U.S. on continental matters was quite strong, both politically and on the court, with perennially good chances to qualify for World Championships and the Olympics.

Gradually, however, the Northern dominance came to an end, as USA and Canada were unable to build much on their early advantages, while at the same time the major sports countries Argentina and Brazil made rapid progress. Suddenly the power base has shifted, and the new leaders do not hesitate to reap the benefits. While they are ‘politically correct’ in expressing the hope that the U.S. will regain its former status, they do not exactly mind that the competition for the World Championship slots is weaker. Moreover, both the resource distribution and the allocation of events are now de facto in the hands of people who mainly look after their own interests and do not care to give the Northern countries a break. Costly travel is only one of the many disadvantages in this scenario. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the traditional ‘North-South tensions’ will give way to a new situation where the re-emergence of U.S. handball is strongly supported within the continent.

But how would then the rest of the handball world and the IHF react to the idea of a split? Right now the IHF has a ‘neat’ and easy situation with three continents (Africa, Asia and Panamerica) having basically equal status and equal rights as regards slots in the World Championship qualifications and the representation in the IHF Council. A split would complicate matters considerably, and none of the other continents (incl. Europe) would accept that Panamerica got a better deal through a split than it currently has. So it is unclear what each of the two parts of a split continent could count on. Moreover, serious talks about a split in Panamerica might raise similar issues in the Asian continent, where East and West do not live very happily together. (This is a mild understatement if one remembers the perennial scandals in the Asian qualifying for IHF events). This is not the kind of chain reaction and resulting complications that the IHF would relish.

The reactions within PanAmerica are also uncertain. Argentina and Brazil may be less affected, at least as long as Canada and the U.S. are not so competitive, but while that is the case, there may still be some prestige involved in leading a continent where one can beat up on the Northern rivals. The rest of South America would clearly feel very threatened. They are now part of the race for a third Panamerican slot, but would there even be a chance for them after a split? Being beaten by Argentina and Brazil in fruitless efforts every time would not be a thrill. Where the interests and loyalties might lie among the Central Americans and the Caribbeans is less clear. With the exception of some of the Caribbean islands, they are all Latin American, of course. But the practical implications may be more important. A good competition structure, with less expensive travel, within a North/Central/Caribbean setting may seem enticing as it could help the progress of all the countries. In the end, much may depend on the IHF reactions and the potential status and opportunities for a new grouping.

To go back to where I started, while it may turn out that the obstacles are insurmountable, there is really not much to lose by trying. Some Panamerican countries could possibly be offended by it, but let’s face it: they are never going to love us that much in any case… Moreover, it may actually be helpful if U.S. handball shows in this way that it does mean business! And the potential gains, in the case of success, are real enough that the effort clearly is worthwhile. So let’s get the ball rolling!