Last Friday, (21 May 2021), European Handball Federation (EHF) President Michael Wiederer gave a wide ranging interview with the Mannhiemer Morgen, a newspaper in Germany. For the most part the interview covered topics directly pertaining to the pandemic and EHF competitions. However, I bulls-eyed in on a couple of questions pertaining to handball’s place on the world stage:
Mannheimer Morgen: You are the representative of European handball interests, recently more and more nations like Argentina, Brazil and Egypt have drawn attention to themselves. How do you rate that?
Wiederer: This development is important for the sport, especially for the international market value of handball. Because as long as we are a sport with a European character, the marketing opportunities remain limited. Many international corporations are not based in Europe. I therefore welcome developments on the other continents. It was a very important step to expand the World Cup to 32 teams.
Mannheimer Morgen: Because handball is so European, the Olympic status is discussed again and again. Are you concerned about this?
Wiederer: We don’t have to worry about this status any more or less than many other sports. We aroused great interest at the Olympic Games in Rio five years ago. But this is also about internationalization. The world association is trying to get more starting places for other continents, that would be at the expense of Europe. As you can see, this is also about a balance, about different interests in terms of the product and a possible narrowing to a few markets.
Great IHF Support, but no Olympic Ticket
What makes Wiederer’s response newsworthy is that to the best of my knowledge it was the first time in print that I’ve seen it publicly acknowledged that the IHF was considering a redistribution of Olympic slots and the logical impact that such a redistribution would have on European nations.
The IHF, of course, has made no secret of its desires to develop new markets in the U.S. and China. Steps taken to help the U.S. include:
- The U.S. Development Project, headed by former EHF President, Jean Brihault that has provided some grant funding for the U.S.
- The dissolution of the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) into two new confederations, the North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation (NACHC) and the South & Central American Handball Confederation (SCAHC).
- Selecting the U.S. as the NACHC representative to the 2021 Men’s Handball World Championships when a competition couldn’t be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, while the PATHF split into the NACHC and SCAHC resulted in separate new qualification paths for the World Championships there has been so similar change announced regarding Olympic qualification. Both the NACHC and SCAHC were still grouped together for qualification via the 2019 PANAM Games.
And, anyone who follows handball in Pan America knows that presently it’s very unlikely that a NACHC nation will qualify for the Olympics via the PANAM Games. Any NACHC Men’s team hoping to qualify would likely have to beat both Brazil and Argentina, two nations that would likely be double digit favorites against any NACHC nation. For the women, it would mean beating Brazil and right now staying within 10 goals would be a major accomplishment for any NACHC women’s team. For reference Brazil beat the USA 34-9 in a 2019 semifinal.
But, if the NACHC were to be given its own slot? Well, that changes the equation entirely. Cuba would instantly become the NACHC favorite for both Men’s and Women’s Olympic Qualification, but the U.S. wouldn’t be far behind. And, every other NACHC nation that has been playing handball for awhile could also envision a legitimate shot at Olympic qualification.
How a Separate Olympic Qualification Slot Would Help the U.S.
For the U.S. a new Olympic Qualification path would likely lead to changes in terms of budget and budgetary priorities. For the past 20 years or so funding from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has been primarily tied to medal prospects. With the U.S. not even having realistic chances of qualifying for the Olympics this has resulted in minimal support from the USOPC. This could change with Olympic qualification suddenly being realistic and feasible as USA Team Handball could make a legitimate case that increased support in key areas could result in Olympic qualification.
In turn, it could also increase the quality and quantity of athletes pursuing handball in the U.S. Historically, one of the big enticements for athlete recruitment has been the possibility of being an Olympian some day. Indeed, at one time making a U.S. national team roster was tantamount to being an Olympian. Over time, however, as U.S. Olympic qualification prospects changed from likely to very unlikely this recruiting pitch became less effective as did the quantity and overall quality of the athletes recruited.
IOC Pressure and Potential European Backlash
It’s never been officially stated, but reportedly the IOC has expressed to the IHF its concerns about handball being too European. And, it has been rumored that this concern even included a warning about handball perhaps being taken off of the Olympic Programme. It’s hard to believe that handball would really be removed from the Olympics, but there is some validity to the underlying point of handball being too European. And, if a little IOC pressure has served as an impetus to put more focus on developing a U.S. handball market I sure won’t complain. And, I also wouldn’t complain about an Olympic slot being awarded to the NACHC as that would be a phenomenal development for the U.S. and the entire NACHC.
But, who would complain… and loudly? The European Handball nations; because in most instances it would result in a slot being taken away from a European side.
Current Olympic Qualification Slots
For reference, here is how the 12 Olympic slots are currently awarded for both the Men and Women:
- Host Nation (1)
- Reigning World Champion (1)
- Europe (1)
- Africa (1)
- Asia (1)
- Pan America (1)
- Qualification Tournaments (6)
And, here is how the different continental federations have fared in the Olympic Qualification Tournaments since the current format was implemented in 2008.
- 2020 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
- Men: Europe (5); Pan America (1)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2016 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
- Men: Europe (5); Africa (1)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2012 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
- Men: Europe (6)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2008 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
- Men: Europe (6)
- Women: Europe (5); Asia (1)
So, it hasn’t been a clean sweep for European nations, but it’s been close. If a slot were to be given to the NACHC it would likely remove a European team. A European team that would probably have made the quarterfinals and would have had a legitimate shot of medaling.
A Change in Time for 2024?
Because of the likely ramifications, I’m not very surprised that this hasn’t been publicly addressed by the IHF. It’s more often the sort of thing that’s discussed informally at coffee breaks and dinner parties. Not the sort of thing that gets promulgated until there’s an agreement in principle by the parties affected. Wiederer’s response in the interview is simply confirmation that this discussion has taken place and Europe is aware of it. Actually, likely been a party to the discussions since they would face the negative impacts.
However, if this change were to be made in time for the 2024 Olympics the clock is definitely ticking. Under the current qualification system the 2023 PANAM Games would again serve as qualification for the Olympics for the NACHC and SCAHC. That may be two years away, but qualification for the PANAM Games would start next summer with regional qualification in South, Central and North America. So, basically, just a year is available to change course and for the NACHC and SCAHC to come up with new separate qualification plans. This is doable, but action would be needed fairly quickly.
And, barring a change in time for 2024 one might wonder whether a change would be made for 2028. This is because the NACHC would already have a representative due to the U.S. hosting. Such a change would in fact result in 2 NACHC nations participating in the Olympics. Yes, given the sometimes glacial pace of change… this might end up being a change for the 2032 Olympics.