The Olympic Program (Is Handball Safe as a Core Sport?)

World Baseball/Softball Confederation officials react stoically as International Wrestling Federation officials celebrate behind them.  Could handball suffer the same fate in a future vote?

World Baseball/Softball Confederation officials react stoically as International Wrestling Federation officials celebrate behind them. Could handball suffer the same fate in a future vote?

Previously, we looked at the IOC votes for the 2024 Olympic host city and IOC Presidency.  This time around we look at the IOC’s decision to bring back wrestling and whether there are any implications to handball’s future.

Earlier this month at the IOC congress, the IOC held a vote to see whether wrestling, baseball/softball or squash would join 24 other disciplines to be part of the Core Olympic Program. The sport of wrestling had been in the Olympics since its inception and had been shocked by an earlier decision by the IOC Executive Council to be removed from the Program.  Suddenly on the outside looking in, wrestling cleaned up its act, enacted several reforms and easily won remittance by beating back baseball/softball and squash.  It was a disappointing defeat for the combined Baseball/Softball Confederation and they vow to fight on for inclusion in future votes.  Critics have cited baseball’s lack of popularity in many parts of the world and it had me wondering if handball could be susceptible to falling to the same fate.  Here’s my analysis, first taking a look at the popularity of the sport.

Handball’s world-wide popularity?

Measuring popularity is an inexact science. How could it not be? As popularity by definition is pretty much subjective.  There are some metrics that can be used to measure popularity.  Numbers of registered players, fans in attendance, numbers of TV viewing hours during the Olympics, number of mentions in local media and the number of countries with sports federations to name a few.  Some of these metrics, in fact, have been touted to claim that handball is the 2nd most popular sport in the world after soccer.  Which while it’s not usually explicitly stated is probably a team sport ranking claim as comparing sports like swimming and gymnastics to team sports is difficult.

While I’d like to think that I’m a pretty big handball fan and promoter of this great sport I’ve annoyed more than a few folks at different times by basically saying, “STOP!  Quit pretending that this European sport has a significant world-wide following.  It doesn’t, period.  In fact, even its European following in several European countries is nothing to write home about.”

Of course, the same sorts of things can be said about a lot of other sports.  Baseball for instance; In fact, I would argue that if one compares the popularity of baseball with handball you’ll find some striking similarities.

  • Both are primarily popular in one part of the world:  handball- Europe; baseball; North America.  Although baseball can make a case that the significant popularity of the sport Japan, South Korea and Taiwan actually shows a broader worldwide reach.
  • Both are mostly an afterthought outside of their strongholds.  Most Americans don’t even know handball exists.  Most Europeans only know baseball from Hollywood movies.  The rest of the world is a mixture of recognition.  Some regions (South America, North Africa) have shown some handball growth; Other regions are developing a greater interest in baseball (Australia, East Asia).

And continuing the similarity comparison further you’ll likely get the following reactions from the sports conscious fan in their respective popularity strongholds when asked about the merits of the other sport.

  • North American:  “Why is this handball sport in the Olympics?  I bet it was invented by Europeans just because they were tired of the U.S. whipping up on them in basketball.”
  • European: “Pffft. Baseball? This is the most boring sport ever invented and, as if, the world needs to add an American sport to the Olympic program.”

This isn’t conjecture.  I’m only paraphrasing actual commentary I’ve read or heard many times.  Each continent is largely ignorant to the importance of the other sport.  I’m guessing that many Europeans aren’t aware that the average individual salary of a Major League player ($3.2M) is more than the budget for most European club teams.  Heck, around 24 players make more all by themselves than the operating budget of Paris S-G (handball’s richest club).  Conversely, most Americans don’t know that handball exists.  Let alone that there are thousands of clubs at the professional and amateur level.

Is handball safe?

So, could handball fall victim to the same fate as baseball?  A regional sport tossed out in favor of some new up and coming sport.  A sport (with the exception of South Korea) that is totally dominated by one continent during Olympic competitions?  A sport like wrestling with its share of problems in recent years; questionable doping controls and allegations of match fixing?

Answer:  Handball’s safe and here’s why:

1) Europe is made up of roughly 50 countries and it dominates the IOC.  It’s common practice to compare the U.S. to Europe for a number of reasons.  They have a similar population, similar economies and both have a significant role in world affairs.  If you were to combine all of the countries into one United States of Europe you would essentially have a counterbalance to the U.S.  But, that isn’t happening anytime soon.

Sometimes, it’s good to be the big dog and throw your weight around.  In particular, the economy of scale that the U.S. presents is a big reason why everyone in the world watches American movies and listens to American music.  And when you present the world’s largest market for goods and services generally everyone is interested in grabbing a portion of that market share.

Sometimes, however, it’s not so good, and in many diplomatic circumstances the big dog can get outmaneuvered by a pack of smaller dogs.  And while the IOC is not a one country, one vote organization like the UN, there is a natural tendency to not let any one country have too many IOC voting members.  For sure, there is still some skewed representation, but the membership is spread around.  If the U.S. had somehow evolved into a patchwork of 50 nations (instead of states) with California and Texas competing under separate flags at the Olympics it’s probably safe to say that the IOC representation for that patchwork of nations would be far greater than the 4 IOC members the U.S. currently haves.  But, the U.S. is not about to split up into multiple nations anytime soon and with over half of the IOC members being from Europe it’s far less likely that a European sport will get tossed out.

2) Other sports are more vulnerable.  By almost any practical measure sports such as modern pentathlon and field hockey are more ripe for picking off the Olympic Program.  In terms of team sports field hockey (particularly men’s field hockey) is clearly more unpopular.  If it’s decided that a team sport needs to go because of the larger footprint (e.g. the number of athletes involved) it’s hard not to see that sport going first.

3) Friends in high places. With a German, Thomas Bach, at the head of the IOC, it’s hard to see handball leaving the Olympic Program.  Additionally, the reported power broker, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait is a fan of the sport even if that fandom might be viewed unfavorably due to his involvement in the controversial 2008 Olympic qualification match between Kuwait and South Korea.  With those individuals holding considerable power and influence it’s hard to see them allowing handball to suffer the fate of wrestling or baseball.

Safe, but be prepared

While handball appears to be in a safe zone it should be kept in mind that few would have thought the sport of wrestling was in any danger not too long ago.  Reportedly, a re-evaluation of the Olympic sports program is high on the agenda of new IOC President Bach.  And, the process to add a new sport failed to add one, so that will surely be looked at as well.  Shiekh Ahmad was even quoted recently stating, that the criteria for a sport’s consideration needs to be clearly defined.  Let’s hope that this is indeed the case and that the IHF places as a top priority making sure that handball scores high in that criteria.  For rest assured while handball right now may be primarily just a European sport the Olympics is the absolute best vehicle for making the sport truly global.  And while it might be a low risk that handball could be booted from the Olympics, the consequences of that low risk happening would be totally devastating to the sport’s chances for growth.