The Beginner’s Guide To Olympic Handball

When you think about the Summer Olympics, you probably picture Michael Phelps weighed down by gold medals, Usain Bolt running so fast that you gain a few pounds just by watching, or Kerri Walsh Jennings proving there’s a lot more to beach volleyball than skimpy outfits. And sure, those sports, along with gymnastics, are the cornerstones of the Olympics, but there are other awesome events you should watch even though they don’t typically make it onto TV.

I’m here to talk about Olympic handball. If you’re American, you probably haven’t seen much of the sport. Why? Because we suck at it. Yes, it’s true, the US isn’t great at everything, though NBC’s coverage sure makes it seem that way. If you’ve watched water polo, which you probably haven’t, handball is basically that without the water. And it’s so much cooler.

Unlike most Olympic sports, handball is actually a sport. I know–technically, shooting a gun, riding a horse, and hitting a tiny ball into a cup are “sports,” but handball has the competitive elements those events lack: fast action, physical play, and a clear objective. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch gymnastics, I will never understand how anything those freaks of nature do warrant deductions. Handball incorporates the core elements of what I consider a good sport: team play, athleticism, skill, strategy, and results based on a tangible points system rather than an arbitrary ruling based on a mystery panel of judges.

The object of the game is to get the ball into the net. Players accomplish that through a series of dribbles, passes, and throws at the goal. It’s a lot like basketball, except the net is on the ground, so short people can play. Games are high-scoring, with each side typically netting somewhere between 25 and 40 goals per game. Goalies exist, but they save only about one of every three shots on net.

To help you visualize, picture a basketball game with seven players on the court instead of five, one of whom is the goalie. Also, the interior “paint” areas are off limits due to a large hockey-like crease (more on that later), and players mostly hang around the perimeter.

Players can and must dribble the ball in the exact same way you would a basketball. Like basketball, you can only take a few steps (three) before you have to dribble or give up the ball. The player has only three seconds before he or she has to dribble, pass, or shoot.

And it’s fast. Players run screens, employ drop passes, and execute a series of fakes before taking their shot. It can get pretty physical in all the chaos, and although you can’t legally deck or tackle your opponent, there’s a lot of contact and collisions. Penalties (fouls) are very similar to basketball: There’s charging; illegal picks; and getting kissed by the opponent, shoving him to the ground, and then pulling down your pants and grabbing your crotch (borderline NSFW) as you exit the arena (if you get ejected, you have to go into the stands and watch the rest of the game like a fan, which is awesome).

Most penalties simply lead to a stoppage in play, after which the ball is awarded to the victimized team; you’ll often see players rush to catch the opponents off guard. Egregious penalties such as violent shoves, dragging someone down, or clotheslines (happens more than you’d think) can lead to a two-minute “suspension,” which is just a needlessly harsh word meaning that the player is sent off for two minutes, and his team plays down a man (like hockey, except the penalty doesn’t end if a goal is scored). The best part is that players typically don’t flop around on the ground after being choke-slammed. After three suspensions, a player is given a red card and is ejected, though unlike soccer, the team isn’t shorthanded for the rest of the game.

If a penalty occurs while a player is in a shooting motion, a “seven-meter” penalty is awarded. The attacker gets an undefended shot against the goalie from seven meters (23 feet) out. It’s the equivalent of a penalty kick in soccer.

But unlike basketball, where the player tediously lobs a ball at an empty net, or soccer, where the shooter kicks one way and the goalie guesses which way to dive, handball doesn’t mess around. Players have seven seconds to throw the ball, and they typically utilize their time by making the goalie look like a complete ass. Shooters feign throws and add in some head fakes before firing that biscuit in the gap. Every now and then you’ll get some sweet moves. Players might lob the ball over the goalie, throw it behind their backs, or manipulate physics in ways I can’t begin to describe (seriously, what the hell is going on in #3 in that video).

Alright, now that we’ve gotten the rules out of the way, let me tell you why you need to watch handball:

Like hockey, there’s a large crease area (with a six-meter radius from the net) that only the goalie is allowed to touch… but the rulebook doesn’t say anything about going over the crease area. And here’s where the true wondrousness of handball lies.

After gaining a scoring position, players leap from the edge of the crease, flail at the goalie, and hammer that ball at the net.

They’re dunks, but with more flair. They’re leaping over the linebacker and stretching the football across the pylon, but with more drama. They’re diving into the stands along the third-base line and snagging that foul ball, except there isn’t a 20-minute break for the pitcher to recover.

One moment, you think you’re watching a tactical game between two civilized teams. Then suddenly, one player leaps into the air over his opponents with ball raised high, yelling “Achilles!,” and you’re watching an ancient Greek warrior smite his enemies. Honestly, you could just crop out the player, superimpose him onto the shores of Marathon, replace the ball with a spear, and there’s hardly any difference.

And the players don’t just rifle balls at the net with barbaric force; there’s finesse shots, beautiful passing plays, and improvised shenanigans. Goals always feel earned and you’re left satisfied.

To recap: Handball has high scoring, fast action, and extravagant feats of athleticism and skill. If you like basketball, you should like handball, even if Team USA isn’t a shoo-in for the gold.


Scott Finger is the founder of the Rhode Island Handball Appreciation Society. You should follow him on Twitter.

Image credit: Armin Kuebelbeck