The long (and frustrating) history of international skepticism about U.S handball.

When John Ryan convinced me about a year ago to help him out with some occasional columns for the THN, I did not quite figure that I would find it so enjoyable that I would get to posting number 100 in less than a year. I do not want to make too much of such a modest ‘milestone’, but at least I wanted to find a special topic for it. Listening keenly to the very interesting audio interview that John Ryan recently had with USA handball federation chairman Dieter Esch, made me conclude that I should write about my experience with the relations between U.S. handball and the IHF and the international handball community.

In the interview (which I really urge you to take the time to listen to), Dieter Esch commented that it should really be obvious that it would be good for the global success of handball if our sport could be given the support needed to develop strongly in the U.S. Clearly he had hoped to find that especially the IHF would be a strong and willing partner in such an endeavor. However, after considerable efforts during his tenure in charge of the U.S. federation, it seems that he has already come to understand that it will not be so realistic to count on much IHF support. Instead, he has concluded that support for progress in the U.S. would primarily have to be obtained through bilateral arrangements with some key federations and leagues in Europe.

On the basis of my very long experience inside the IHF (32 years), while simultaneously being immersed in the handball situation in the U.S., I am afraid I must agree with the conclusions drawn by Dieter Esch. His predecessors in U.S. handball, especially Peter Buehning, tried hard in all kinds of ways to gain some momentum inside the IHF in favor of a concrete and systematic development effort in the U.S. It was often very easy to get positive, or even enthusiastic, verbal expressions of support. Clearly, many IHF leaders intellectually appreciated the potential benefits for world handball and the IHF, if major progress could be achieved in the U.S. But from there to favorable decisions and actual action, the step always seemed too large.

One could observe several fundamental reasons: first and foremost, regrettably the focus on strategic and longer-term aspects in the decision-making was always weak. Frankly, the IHF persons of influence were much more inclined to think in a narrow and short-sighted way, when resources were to be allocated. So a more selfish emphasis on supporting the immediate needs in one’s own continents and countries tended to be prevalent, something that I have previously noted in my general comments on the IHF structure and decision-making processes. Therefore, the idea of investing in something that would (or at least could) be more for the overall good, and more for the longer term, would tend to lose out. It has just not been the IHF approach.

But then there is also the unfortunate impact of some misunderstandings. For international sports officials it just does not seem normal or reasonable to grant special resource allocations in favor of projects in what is overall the wealthiest country on earth. In many parts of the world, it is understandably difficult to grasp that specifically in handball there could be a need for treating the U.S. like a poor and weak member country. It just does not fit the image of a country that is so dominant in a large number of other sports and seems to have unlimited resources within the realm of professional sports. That all this does not do U.S handball any good, and in that in fact it might even be a handicap to be dwarfed by rich and traditional U.S sports, may be hard to appreciate.

Conversely, it may also be hard, from a U.S vantage point, to accept that the IHF resources are not exactly unlimited. Indeed, the amount of money allocated annually to genuine development aid around the world is embarrassingly modest. Whether this is an appropriate and necessary state of affairs may be a different matter. Similarly, the IHF clearly does not have its own resources in terms of personnel resources for technical work around the globe. For such efforts, IHF must rely on borrowed resources from some of the stronger member nations, and it may then in reality be more interesting for such countries to get involved on a bilateral basis.

But there is also another, quite different, side of the issue. For a possible investor, regardless of the field involved, there tends to be an insistence that the recipient of the resources must show clear signs of being able to provide a return on the investment. In the case of U.S handball, there can be little doubt that the potential is there, but it has to be admitted that the track record is discouraging. I have personally heard comments to the effect that’ helping U.S handball with money would be like putting the money into a sink hole’, or that ‘your compatriots never seem to have their act together’.

What these observers have had in mind when making such comments are notions that over the years there has been too much emphasis on national teams as a ‘locomotive’ and that the grassroots level has been neglected. Handball persons from abroad have also had the opportunity to notice, as a negative surprise, the low quality of play at the U.S Nationals or other club competitions. The sense that the U.S. federation largely failed to use the handball tournaments of the 1984 and the 1996 Olympics as strong ‘jump starts’ has also been frequently been used as an argument for being skeptical about the usefulness of supporting U.S. handball from abroad. Moreover, there are impressions in the minds of observers that U.S. federation leaders have been poorly organized, spending too much time on internal disputes instead of trying to pull in the same direction.

So while Dieter Esch and his colleagues are trying hard to give the U.S. handball federation a fresh start, both in terms of demonstrable progress and in terms of the perceptions created for the benefit of handball people in the IHF and abroad, it must be understood that there is quite a bit of old ‘baggage’ to be reckoned with. This makes it all the more important that the program and the results of the federation quickly begin to show that there is indeed a new approach that deserves global support.