Reunion Island: The French Handball Iceland due East of Madagascar

Just in case you were wondering, here's where you can find Reunion Island.


An ehfTV video has got me thinking that it’s a great time for a post on two of my favorite areas of study: Geography and Handball.  The subject video highlights top German side Kiel’s summer trip to Reunion Island in Travelogue fashion.  Apparently this team building trip to Daniel Narcisse’s home has put them in good stead so far this season.

As one who likes to think of himself as a “maphead” I’ll have to admit that before I lived in France I knew very little about France’s overseas Departments and Territories.   I knew of Reunion Island, however, because many years earlier my curiosity had been piqued by the talented Jackson Richardson.  Who is that Rasta looking Frenchmen with the American sounding name?

That investigation eventually led me to an atlas to find out just where the heck this Ile Reunion was.  Located in the Indian Ocean due East of Madagascar this French outpost is about as far away as you can get from the U.S.  That’s not an exaggeration as Reunion Island is almost an “antipode” of the Western U.S.  In other words if you start digging a hole straight through the center of the Earth, you’ll eventually come out in the Indian Ocean not far from this unlikely French Iceland.

French Iceland?  Well, while I doubt that Handball is a part of the culture on Reunion Island to the same extent it is in Iceland, there’s no denying this island of 800,000 souls has produced two of the world’s best players ever- Jackson Richardson and Daniel Narcisse.  We can debate where those two gentlemen rank among the all-time greats; top 10? Top 20? Top 50? But, it’s undeniably remarkable that this remote outpost can lay such a claim.

Why Reunion Island? How did this happen? Well, if anything this result is indicative of France’s effort to integrate all of its outlying Departments and Territories into France proper.  In an American context, Reunion Island and the departments of the Caribbean/South America Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana are France’s versions of Hawaii.  Those “Departments” have full representation in France’s State Assembly, in much the same way Hawaii is our full fledged 50th state.  And while those Departments have their own culture quite a bit of effort is expended to make sure those citizens also realize they are French just as much as someone growing up in Paris.  And one of those efforts is financial aid in the sporting department.

I’m not certain as to exactly what is provided, but it’s clear that sports are well organized as athletes from these departments are well represented on French National teams in several sporting disciplines.  In addition to Richardson and Narcisse, Joel Abati, Didier Dinart and Cedric Sorhaindo are recent products of the overseas departments.  And those are some of the most notable players.  There are also plenty of talented player playing for French Club teams.

If one’s perspective is to look at these French outposts as part of France, this representation is only somewhat remarkable.  Sure, these parts of France are over represented in terms of their relative population, but this is true in other countries and in other sports.  For instance, there’s a preponderance of ice hockey players in the U.S. from Minnesota and very few from Texas.  There are more beach volleyballers from California then there are from Illinois, etc., etc.

But, if one’s perspective is to compare these French outposts to their non-French neighbors the difference is night and day.  I’m guessing that a Reunion Island Department level all-star team could beat every national side in sub-Saharan Africa with the possible exception of Angola.  They certainly could easily handle any nation with a coastline on the Indian Ocean.  In the America’s, Guadeloupe and Martinique would probably give Cuba a run for the money in a Caribbean championship.  They would be a notch below Argentina and Brazil, but I bet you those sides a battle would be in the hunt for the top 3 spots at any of the recent Pan American Championships.

So, are these handball success stories a model to follow or are they just interesting anomalies to the Handball geography of the world which is overwhelmingly centered on Europe?  Well, in one sense they do in fact demonstrate that the sport can become popular in some unlikely locales.  Unlikely in that these Handball hotbeds are surrounded for the most part by other countries where the sport barely even exists.  But such popularization doesn’t come cheap or easy.  More than anything it’s a minor testament to the soft power and financial investment that Mainland France has projected onto these far flung dominions.  There’s almost no movement for independence in these islands for a number of reasons.  France has treated these citizens well, made them feel French to a great extent and developed their internal infrastructure much more so than could be expected on their own. And one small aspect of that infrastructure is ready access to gyms, coaching and equipment for the sport of handball.

But, there’s no denying the significant impact of this investment to the Handball world, particularly to France.  Imagine their national side for the past decade without players like Richardson, Abati, Dinart, Narcisse and Sorhaindo.  They’d still be good, but I don’t think we’d be talking about the same number of World and European titles.

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