Apropos the Olympics – Part 6: Would an ‘under-23’ limit be good for handball?

not even the younger French players Accambray and Barachet would be eligible for an 'under-23' team

As most of you are likely to be aware, the IOC and FIFA have worked out a special deal under which the Olympic football tournament is essentially available only to players under the age of 23. Three players per team are allowed to be above that age. This particular rule came into effect in 1992. In 1984, the previous prohibition against participation by ‘professional’ players was lifted, and the rule for 1984 and 1988 limited the participation on European and South American teams to players who had no previous World Cup experience, whereas no such limit existed for the rest of the world. The 1984 ruling was disliked, inasmuch as it created an inconsistency between countries, so this led to the change in 1992.

The reason behind the current rule is that FIFA absolutely does not want the Olympic tournament to compete with FIFA’s own World Cup, while on the other hand the IOC really does not want FIFA to withdraw from the Olympic Games. So this is what causes IOC to allow this unique compromise. It has led to relatively interesting Olympic football tournaments, with a considerably more balanced strength between continents, as compared with the World Cup. African nations have benefitted in the past, and now in London we saw a final between Brazil and Mexico, while Korea and Japan played for the bronze medals. In other words, not one single European team, including the host country, managed to qualify for the semifinals, but the quality of the tournament was still relatively good.

Among some of our readers, it raised the question whether a similar arrangement could be feasible, beneficial and allowed also in handball, and I decided to get the reactions of a number of handball friends from around the world. From a U.S. perspective, it had been suggested that some form of age limit would lead to a ‘more equal playing field’, with better opportunities for non-traditional handball nations. Similarly, it was suggested that in such countries one could hope that this kind of rule could spur an increased emphasis on youth development in handball. And the benefit for the traditional handball powers in handball would be that it would remove the Olympic Games as an additional burden in the competition calendar, which in Europe already entails four other major events in every four-year period. Right now we hear top club teams in Europe complaining that many of their players are coming back tired from London.

But, not surprisingly, I have quickly been overwhelmed by skepticism or, more bluntly, sharply negative reactions during my inquiry. It appears that, as one could sense from the enthusiasm with which even the most experienced players seem to embrace the Olympic opportunity, that this would absolutely not be the way in which the top players would want to have their burden reduced. They would instead want to cut back on World Championships or continental events. Moreover, there is no expectation that the IOC would ever be prepared to discuss such an arrangement for handball. Football is unique in its power base to ‘get away with’ such an arrangement, and IHF would probably be told that if the best players were not be made available, then the IOC would be happy to drop handball and replace us with some other sport(s).

Moreover, as many have noted, the level of a handball tournament for, say, ‘under-23’ would be so vastly inferior to a full-strength tournament that handball would ‘shoot itself in the foot’ from an image and PR standpoint, under the hypothesis that the IOC would allow it. And it is clear that if one looks at the quality of the World Junior Championships, and also reviews what players would in fact remain on the Olympic rosters from London, then the depletion would really be quite dramatic. The top teams in the Olympic soccer tournament had emerging stars who knew how to dazzle the crowds, but we could not count on the same situation in handball.

Several of my sources even doubted the premise that there would be more of a ‘nivellation’ between continents and nations. In fact, I heard the suggestion that the traditional handball countries would be even more likely to have the upper hand if one moved down in the age brackets. And indeed the results from recent years of Junior World Championships seem to confirm such an assumption, especially on the women’s side. To the extent that the ‘other’ continents may have seemed to have had a relatively better chance on the men’s junior side, this is in fact more related to a deliberately more generous allocation of slots to the other continents. So, all in all, the notion of an age limit clearly seems to fail to create any enthusiasm!