Olympic Preview: Team Handball

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

First Appeared: 1936 (men); 1976 (women)

by Mike Morrison and Mark Zurlo

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Despite the fact that South Korea won the women's gold medal in both 1988 and 1992, and that over eight million people from over 150 countries play it, handball is largely considered a European-only sport. In fact, ask many Americans what they think handball is, and they'll probably describe a game similar to racquetball with two competitors slapping a small ball off a wall with their hands. Not so.


Did You Know?
The NBA Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon began his athletic career and unknowingly honed his basketball skills by playing handball in Nigeria as a child.


The easiest way to describe handball is, "soccer with the hands instead of the feet." Much like soccer, it can be both physical and fast, with shots being thrown at speeds approaching 65 miles per hour. The sport used to be played on a large turf field with 11 players per side, but has more recently been moved indoors and played with with seven players, which has sped up the game even more.

The object is to score more goals than the other team by throwing a ball (somewhat smaller than a soccer ball) into a D-shaped net. Games consist of two 30-minute halves. Players can only take three steps after catching the ball and can only hold the ball for three seconds before they must either pass, dribble (like basketball), or shoot. A defender can use his/her hands or body to block a ball but can't use the feet or lower legs (except for goalies). Like soccer, free throws, corner throws, and penalty throws become an integral part of the game.

There will be twelve men's handball teams and ten women's teams participating in the Beijing Games. They will each be divided into two groups for a round-robin series. The top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals where it becomes a single-elimination tourney.

In Beijing, 2007 World Champion Germany will be tough to beat on the men's side, while on the women's side, 2006 European Champion Norway will be among the front-runners. The competition will be held at 19,000-seat Indoor National Stadium, also home of the artistic gymnastics events.

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