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A History of Handball

By Matt Herb

(LifeWire)

The Early Days

Handball is believed to be one of humanity's oldest games. Some historians speculate that it predates soccer since humans have always been better at manipulating objects with their hands than with their feet.

There's strong evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans played games that could be considered precursors to modern handball. The Greeks' game was called urania. As depicted in Homer's Odyssey, it employed a ball made out of purple wool. Later, the Romans played harpaston, in which competitors threw a ball over a line. There is also evidence that games similar to handball were played in Greenland, Egypt and medieval Europe. One of these sports, played in Germany, was called fangballspiel, which translates to "catch ball game."

The Modern Era

Handball as it is played today began in northern Europe in the late 19th century, when it emerged as the successor to such regionally popular games as raffball and Königsbergerball. Holger Nielsen of Denmark - who actually medaled in fencing and shooting at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 - and German physical education teacher Max Heiser are credited with shaping the basic rules that would come to govern the sport. The International Amateur Handball Federation was established in 1928; it was replaced in 1946 by the International Handball Federation, which continues today as the sport's world governing body.

Handball underwent a number of refinements during its formative years. The most significant was a move indoors. In its first modern incarnation, called field handball, teams of 11 played on turf fields. Because of the game's popularity in snowy Scandinavia, a scaled-down indoor version featuring seven-member teams soon arose and eclipsed field handball. It is this version of the sport that is played at the Olympics today.

Olympic Origins

Despite its connection to Greek antiquity, handball didn't make its Olympic debut until 1936. As host of the Berlin Games, Germany was allowed to add a demonstration sport to the program and chose field handball. The Germans outscored their first four opponents 86-13 on their way to the championship game. They went on to defeat Austria, 10-6, to win the gold medal.

The Germans' romp did little to stir handball fever in the wider Olympic community. The sport, primarily a European phenomenon at the time, was not included in 1948 when the summer games resumed after a 12-year hiatus. In fact, handball's absence lasted until 1972, when the men's indoor game returned as part of the Munich Olympics - this time as an official event.

The revived sport displayed more staying power than before. After the 1972 Summer Olympics, in which Yugoslavia stunned the defending world champion, Romania, to win the gold medal, the International Olympic Committee allowed it to remain a part of the games.

Women's handball was added to the roster of Olympic sports at the 1976 Montreal Games, with the Soviet Union winning the first gold medal. Medals in men's and women's team handball have been awarded in every Summer Olympics since.

Handball Today

In recent decades, the sport has migrated from its ancestral homeland in northern Europe to parts of the world where it once was unknown. It has made big gains in Asia, as evidenced by the Koreans' Olympic success: Both the women and men medaled at the 1988 Seoul Games, taking the gold and silver, respectively. The women won the gold again four years later in Barcelona.

Handball enthusiasts have had more difficulty in importing their sport to the Americas. It has caught on in a few countries - notably Brazil and Argentina - but remains a curiosity in the United States, where it is often confused with the racquetball-style recreational sport of the same name.

Handball seemed to be gaining a foothold in the 1990s when the NCAA classified it as an "emerging sport" for women. It was hoped at the time that schools would form varsity handball teams in order to help satisfy their Title IX obligations, but 10 years later, little progress has been made. In fact, the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics is threatening to remove handball from its roster of emerging sports in 2008 if no growth is seen. In a news release dated Sept. 14, 2007, the CWA included handball, along with archery, badminton and synchronized swimming, on a list of sports that "show no steady progress in sponsorship and have less than ten institutions sponsoring the sport at the varsity level."

The absence of elite college players has impacted the American national teams. No American handball team of either gender has ever won an Olympic medal, and no American team is going to win one until at least 2012. In 2007, the US men's and women's national teams both failed to qualify for the Pan-American Games; consequently, they will not compete in the Beijing Olympics.

Return to Olympic Handball Main Page

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Matt Herb is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He covers college football, basketball and nonrevenue sports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other publications and Web sites.
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