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Handball at the 2012 London Summer Olympics

While Olympic handball might not be the best known or most popular sport in the world, it certainly is one of the oldest. In fact, Homer’s Odyssey even references a game of handball. (That’s old!)

How Olympic handball is contested has morphed over the years. When the modern sport developed in Scandinavia and northern Europe in the late 1800s, it was played outdoors. Field handball actually debuted in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Men’s indoor handball became an Olympic reality in 1972 at the Munich Games, and women’s competition followed in 1976 Montreal.

Handball continues to thrill audiences as an indoor sport; as old as it is, however, it continues to grow and change. A newer version called beach handball is catching on. (If beach volleyball’s explosive popularity in the 1950s and 60s is any indication, you’ll be hearing about Olympic beach handball before too long!)

Olympic handball basics

The field of play for Olympic handball is an indoor court that is 20 meters wide and 40 meters long. A midcourt line divides the court into two, with a goal at each end. Each goal is 2 meters high by 3 meters wide.

Here’s what you can expect to see:

  1. Teams of seven players move the ball up and down the court by passing or dribbling, as in basketball.

    The difference is that a handball ball is a small, hard synthetic leather ball only about 60 centimeters, or about 24 inches, in circumference. That’s approximately the size of a bowling ball — and about 6 inches (or 18 centimeters) smaller than a typical basketball.

  2. Players may use any part of their bodies above the knee to handle the ball.

    They may hold the ball for up to three seconds and they may take up to three steps while they’re holding it. (Goalies are excepted from these restrictions.)

  3. All the players (backs, wings, and even the goalkeeper) play both offensive and defensive positions.

  4. A goalkeeper guards the net to prevent the other team from scoring, but high-scoring games are not uncommon.

A game or match has two 30-minute halves. The winner is the team that scores the most goals by the end of the match. Because handball is such a physical game, two referees are on hand to keep the players in check.

Olympic handball competition format

In the Summer Olympics, there is one medal competition each for men and for women. Twelve teams compete in each competition. Each qualifying country is limited to one men’s and one women’s team, 14 athletes per team (seven players plus seven substitutes). A total of 168 men and 168 women will compete.

Both the men’s and women’s competitions include a preliminary phase, in which two pools of six teams play each other round robin. Match winners receive two points; a tie nets each team one point. No points are awarded for a loss. The top four teams at the end of this round move to the knockout rounds; winners of those games proceed to the final medal rounds.

Competition in handball for the 2012 London Summer Olympics will run July 28 through August 12. Early rounds will be contested at the Copper Box facility, with semifinal and final medal competition at the Basketball Arena. Both venues are located within downtown London’s Olympic Park.

For more information, visit the website of the sport’s governing body, the International Handball Federation (IHF).

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