Joe Healy resides in Houston, Texas. By day, he is an instructional designer. By night, he is a freelance sportswriter. Below is his account of discovering the sport of handball and his growth as a fan.
The Olympics have a funny way of creating seminal memories in our lifetimes.
People of a certain age might remember where they were when a young Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect ten in the 1976 games in Montreal, the first time that score had ever been awarded in Olympic history. Others may vividly remember the exploits of Carl Lewis in 1984 in Los Angeles. For basketball fans the world over, watching the Dream Team in 1992 dominate their competition and introduce NBA basketball to the rest of the globe likely stands out.
For a different generation, Michael Phelps’ incredible Olympics in 2008 or Usain Bolt’s electrifying sprints will be the Olympic memories that last a lifetime.
For me, I remember where I was standing in my living room as an eight-year-old during the 1996 Olympics when Michael Johnson, gold shoes and all, broke the world record in the 200-meters to win gold. For better or worse, I also remember my beloved Team USA basketball looking absolutely lost and overmatched for the first time on the world stage at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, leading to a bronze medal, which was downright unfathomable given their dominance in previous Olympics.
My most recent such memory, though, was in 2012, and it’s a little bit more unconventional. It’s not a memory of a particularly outstanding performance, or one of a great upset that caught the world by surprise, or even one that determined medalists in the given event.
No, this memory is of the first time I saw handball.
It was one evening during the London Olympics. The prime time coverage here in the US had ended for the night and I was dozing off on the couch before heading to bed. I fired up the nascent NBC Live Extra app (as it was known then) and specifically looked for replays of sports from that day that the networks here in the US don’t generally cover.
And there it was. Team handball.
I’ll be honest. I don’t remember which two countries were playing. I know for fact that it was a preliminary game, and I know that it was early enough in the Olympics that that single game didn’t mean a whole lot on its own. None of that mattered, though, because I was transfixed from the very start.
I loved the speed of the game. I loved the quick pace at which it was played, with very few play stoppages. Most of all, I loved that it combined skills from some of my favorite sports, such as baseball and basketball.
I felt like I had discovered hidden treasure. Why had I never heard of this wonderful game? Is this a dream sport that I had concocted in some kind of Olympics fever dream that I’m destined to eventually wake up from?
I distinctly recall going to work the next day, telling co-workers about handball, and getting nothing more than puzzled looks in return. Unsatisfied with the the lack of awareness of those in my immediate bubble, if you will, I turned to the internet, and was heartened to find that the American sports internet, particularly those mainstream media members covering the games in person, were buzzing about handball much in the same way I was.
Not only that, but they had many of the same questions I had. Where has this sport been all of our lives? Why doesn’t America compete in the sport at the highest level? Where can I get more of this? I read just about everything I could get my hands on about the sport, including all of those pieces suggesting changes to the game to make it better and what Americans can do to become instant players on the world stage.
I followed the sport for the rest of those Olympics, watching the odd game here and there until the closing ceremonies of the London games came and went, and then something happened that I’m ashamed to admit. I kind of moved on and didn’t give handball much thought for a while. I didn’t pursue information on any of the top domestic handball leagues in Europe, I didn’t look into the next big international competition, and I didn’t spend any time getting a better understanding of the rules of the game or learning about the best players in the game.
Perhaps I was just an “every four years” handball fan.
At least, on that part, I would have been far from alone. With few exceptions, all of the interest in the sport from American media outlets dried up soon after the events ended, and any momentum that might have been gained for the US to get involved in playing the game seemed to dissipate almost overnight.
Fast forward four years to these Rio Olympics, and I’m here to tell you a switch has been flipped for me personally. Sure, I could go back to not paying the sport any mind in the coming weeks, but that feels unlikely.
Four years ago, I just dipped my toe in the water that is the world of team handball, but this time around, I’ve gone in headfirst. I’ve found myself watching multiple handball matches each and every day of the games, and I’ve paid much more attention to trying to pick up subtle nuances and rhythms of the game.
On top of that, I’ve spent a lot time (often while watching the matches, mind you) researching the recent history of the game and of the best domestic leagues in the world. I was also heartened to learn that the next world championship is just around the corner, in January of 2017, giving me another chance, quickly, to take in high-level international competition.
Perhaps the best evidence that I’ve become one of you, a certified fan of the sport, however, is that, first and foremost, I feel compelled to spread the word about this game and help others to discover it.
Beyond that, I’ve also found myself with stronger opinions on the sport, and I’ve started to really learn what I like and don’t like in my coverage of handball. This time around, I’ve largely taken a pass on (or rolled my eyes after reading) the articles that provide short-sighted suggestions on how to improve the sport or make it more accessible for an American audience, and I’ve done much the same with the pieces that have posited the theory that all it would take is a few ex-college basketball players to decide they want to pursue handball rather than chase down NBA dreams.
Ask those who pushed to make soccer a big deal in America, both with the NASL in the 70s and 80s and then again with MLS in recent years about how difficult it is to get a sport that few know of to become a phenomenon in the saturated sports market that is the US. That sport still has a long way to go in this country to be sure, but it’s come a long way.
Those wanting to see a similar spread of handball in the US would do well to take a couple of lessons from those brave souls looking to bring a largely foreign sport to these shores. Soccer is seeing its biggest period of growth now that organizers are simply selling soccer rather than an Americanized version of the game.
You’ve also got to grow it from the ground up. Just like putting games from a brand-new soccer league in football stadiums right from the start might have been a bit foolhardy, expecting handball to sweep the nation in its first pass would be similarly so.
It’s going to take some time, and it’s going to take great effort, but handball can get there as well.
And I’m here to help.