Christer Ahl has retired from handball journalism and commentary, but I still get the occasional email from him regarding the latest competition. The latest missive sent last night was simply titled: “Remarkable” and started off like this:
“Never thought I would see it happen in my lifetime: all the European men’s team in the Olympics either Nordic or Latin; absolutely nobody from the Eastern part; Of course, many decades ago, Austria was the easternmost team where handball existed; but then the idea of Portugal playing handball, or even Spain…..”
Christer, who was involved with the IHF in one capacity or another from 1977 to 2009 has seen it all and indeed this is the first time there will be no nation from Eastern Europe participating in the Olympics. For that matter it joins 1992 as the only Olympics in which no nation from the former Yugoslavia has qualified. And, prior to that Yugoslavia participated in every Olympics from 1972 to 1988.
A Gradual Shift
Yes, indeed, if one looks at the 1970s and 1980s maps below the 2020 map does look a bit strange. It didn’t happen overnight and if one looks at the maps below, it’s been a gradual shift westward. There surely are a number of reasons this has occurred, but for the most part I think it mirrors the growing professionalism of handball in Western Europe and the corresponding decreasing state support to national team programs in Eastern Europe.
This doesn’t mean that handball isn’t being played in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. One just has to look at the rosters on pro clubs to see that isn’t true. But, what has changed over time has been the ability of Western European nations to develop better home grown talent. Gone are the days of club rosters totally reliant on ringers/jokers from Eastern Europe. For sure those ringers are still on rosters… but, they are more complimentary than dominant. They help bring up the overall quality of play which in turn develops more talent across the board.
Momentary Blip or a Trend for the Future?
So is this just a momentary blip or a trend for the future. I’m thinking it’s a blip, but only because Eastern Europe is looking more and more like Western Europe as the clubs and leagues become more commercialized. Poland and Hungary have decent leagues and top clubs like Szeged are building new arenas. The SEHA league is also enabling some of the clubs in smaller nations to get better competition. More talent will be able to stay home and that will trickle down and support the development of more in country talent.
European Nations Participating in Men’s Olympic Handball Competitions (1972-2020)