Apropos the Olympics – Part 9: The refereeing in handball brings more concerns than reassurance

British referees Battlett and Stokes had a game during the Olympic tournament

In two pre-Olympic articles, I commented on refereeing. First I noted that the group of referees nominated for London was almost completely lacking in Olympic experience, and then I previewed the issues and instructions that would need to be discussed with the Olympic handball referees to get them to maintain a correct and uniform line. It now seems inevitable that I offer some comments on my observations and evaluation.

Although I watched, through high-quality TV broadcasts or live streaming, 49 complete games and 15 at least half games (making me miss only 12 games of 76), which provides me with a very solid basis, it is of course conceivable that the official IHF evaluation will differ somewhat from my own informal effort. But I am reassured to know that the IHF Referee Commission, strongly supported by the Coaching and Methods Commission, has collected a wealth of information to be able to come up with a solid analysis in due course.

I noted in my article about the nominated group of referees that this is group that I have reason to trust as a serious and honest team, who will do their utmost to handle the games with integrity and to protect their own reputation as unbiased officials. Nothing that I saw from London makes me modify that evaluation in the slightest. To the extent that, in some games, the refereeing may have given the impression of being a bit lop-sided, it was more a result of an inability to recognize, in that particular game, that one of the two teams was much more cynical than the other, in terms of acting outside the rules. And if they did not get caught, some unfairness may have been created.

From a technical standpoint, it was clear that the areas of emphasis, which the referees heard about from the IHF before the start of the event, and which were basically also the ones that I commented on a month ago, were indeed the ones creating the main challenges during the Olympics. This is obviously not because the referees ‘refused to listen’; it simply confirms that there are some specific aspects of the game that always tend to be the more difficult ones and that, despite the reminder and the support from the IHF, these will still be the ones that cause problems and lead to criticism.

It may be frustrating to point it out, but the key issue was most likely the frequently shifting line in individual punishments. There were tendencies to differences between referee couples, but also for the same couple from one game to the next. Even more awkwardly, there was a general trend towards more leniency as we moved toward the later stages of the event and, similarly, the referees sometimes became too soft and ‘diplomatic’ during the critical final stage of a game. Also, direct 2-minute suspensions and direct ‘red cards’ were used too sparingly.

In many games it seemed that the players on the offense could do nothing wrong, as almost all the decisions went against the defenders. And unfortunately, this did not quite match the reality, so it led instead to an escalation of the methods by the desperate defenders. But in individual games, it was suddenly turned around so that all the attention seemed to be on infringements by the attackers. Of course, this tended to cause confusion.

As so often in the past, many of the problem situations occurred around the 6-meter line. Often this was in the sense that a ‘wrestling’ or ‘shoving’ match was taking place, without any action from the referees. And another issue involved the well-known trend of ‘detecting’ defenders inside the goal-area and awarding a 7-meter-throw, even when this was not really the situation. It would be a major break-through if, one day, one could get a consistently more accurate observation by the referees about this.

And the final realization was that too many of our top referees are not used to, and comfortable with, refereeing women’s matches. So precisely in the Olympic Games, which is the only time when we have simultaneous men’s and women’s competition, it was noticeable that the judgment of body contact in the women’s games often was flawed or at least inconsistent.

This year’s Olympic handball tournaments may not have been of the absolute top level that one might have hoped. But the speed, dynamics and physicality were nevertheless sufficient to make observers begin to wonder if we have reached the stage where it is beyond the capacity of TWO pairs of eyes to register everything that is happening on the court. Or alternatively, what are the scientific methods that have not yet been tried, in the area of helping the referees to maintain the concentration, focus, recognition and interpretation that is needed?

More generally, most of the referees in London will also by appearing in the Men’s World Championship in just five months time. On the basis of the observations now made, will the IHF, in collaboration with the continental federations, be able to apply the resources needed to follow these referees in the meantime, offering feedback, mentoring and practical advice? As I have commented, these referees are not ‘beginners’, but they also are not ‘ready’ in the sense that can be left to their own devices. They constitute a key resource for our elite handball, who need and deserve constant support and nurturing!