It's halftime at the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium on Tuesday afternoon. Sneakers squeak on the court as the French and Chinese players warm up; they practice their dribbling with both hands and perfect their jump-shot techniques. Nothing but net! The game resumes. China comes out in a tight zone defense. France passes the ball around the perimeter, creating open shots for its players. France's Christophe Kempe posts up his man and hits a turnaround shot. The French take control. Inane music, like the opening chords of We Will Rock You, blares over the loudspeaker while the teams are playing. It's just as annoying as in an NBA arena.
Ah, the wonders of Olympic basketball. Except these guys aren't playing hoops. They're going for gold in team handball, a popular game throughout Europe and, to a lesser extent, American gym classes. But handball is the only sport in which the Americans don't have a single Olympian. (Rhythmic gymnastics you know, the one with the ribbons and balls also has no Yank participant. But since it's an event within gymnastics, it doesn't count as its own Olympic sport.)
What a waste. Haven't U.S. Olympic officials heard about this medal race with China? Every piece of hardware counts, and the U.S. is squandering a chance to cash in. Here's how handball works (and we're not talking about the version of the sport where old guys, often in frighteningly tight shorts, slap a ball against a wall): six athletic men and women run around a court, dribbling a mini-soccer ball every three steps. They pass it around and throw it into a nearly 10-ft.-wide, 7-ft.-high goal. You have to shoot the ball outside of an arc, which stretches about 20 ft. from the goal. But you can leap forward into the arc, as long as you start your jump behind the line.
Sure, there's a goalie there, but think about it: you get to throw a little ball into a fairly big net. Soccer is hard precisely because you can't use your hands; it's difficult to control a ball with your feet. Here, just grip it and rip it. Basketball is tricky because the hoop is 10 ft. off the ground and relatively tiny. Here, throw it high, throw it low, you will score.
Hockey is hard because you skate on ice. In handball, you just move your legs. "It's running, jumping and throwing," says Tom Fitzgerald, who played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1996, the last year in which the U.S. fielded a team. "It's what Americans do. What's the problem here?"
Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), admits there's no real excuse for the America's dismal Olympic handball record, which is 4 wins, 26 losses, 1 tie and yet another seat on the bench in '08. "I'm absolutely on the same wavelength," says Roush. "There's an athlete pool out there we can tap into to be successful. We have struggled for decades to figure out a formula."
How about this: before the qualifying tournaments for the 2012 Olympics, corral a mix of solid ex-college basketball players and recently retired NBAers. Ideally, you'd get current NBA players, but qualifiers would happen during the NBA season, so the players wouldn't be able to break free. Put the college players and pro retirees in a camp for a month. Bang, the U.S. should be in the Olympics. Handball players and the USOC will tell you that the game is way too technical and that it takes years to learn all the tricks. I'm not convinced that's the case. Who dribbles better than American ballers? The goal on defense is to shuffle your feet and keep your man in front of you. Basketball players practice this in grade school. On offense, it's "work to find the open man."
Sound familiar? Even the world's best admit that handball is fairly straightforward. "It's not a difficult sport to practice," says Victor Tomas of Spain. "It's not a difficult sport to learn."
Once the U.S. team qualifies for the Olympics, go for the pros: take that group of NBA players who've always wanted to be Olympians, put them in a summer camp before the Games, and bang, the U.S. has a medal contender. That's ridiculous, you say. What sports executive would let a multimillion-dollar investment play some silly sport in the off-season? Well, if basketball general managers let their guys play Olympic basketball in the summer and hockey bosses permit their stars to play in the Olympic tournament during their season, why wouldn't they let them hurl the handball? They're less likely to get hurt in a sport that every kid in gym class can play. Plus, it'll keep them from crashing motorcycles during the off-season.
And what happens to those poor guys who qualified for the Olympics but got supplanted by NBA stars for the real Games? Cruel but necessary. This is an arms race. Plus, have you seen those Chinese sports schools? Next to them, this strategy is saintly.
But that's just the quick fix for 2012 anything is better than what the U.S. has now. Around, say, 2011, find a group of committed athletes who have no options in other pro sports, house them in the USOC's Colorado Springs training center for weeks at a time, and start shooting for 2016. Give them stipends. Offer them the Olympic dream. The USOC does this in minor sports like wrestling and rowing. Why not do it for handball?
If funding is a problem, steal money from the budget of insane sports we'll never be good at. Modern pentathlon? Ski jumping? Biathlon? What's the point? It's so much simpler for Americans to throw a little ball around than shoot stuff after skiing. Cede that to the Nords.
What's more, the handball world wants the U.S. to succeed. In fact, France plans to hold a tournament for its club teams in Miami next year, in order to promote handball in the States. "America is a great country," says French player Jerome Hernandez. "Look at baseball, basketball, American football. The U.S. knows how to build a sport." France's Kempe gets a bit whimsical. "It was always my father's dream to have handball become big in the U.S.," he says. "Maybe I'll become a trainer in the U.S. one day." Remember, these are French guys saying this.
The rest of the world knows that this Olympic sport is ripe for an American invasion. "I tell people all the time that if the U.S. starts playing team handball," says David Davis of Spain, "it's over for the rest of the world." It may be too late for Beijing. But it's time for the U.S. to give itself a hand.