Why does the U.S. stink at Olympic handball? The gold medal favorites have the answer

TOKYO — Mikkel Hansen was born in Helsingør, Denmark, and if he’d been born just about anywhere else in the world, he likely never would’ve become handball’s GOAT.

He would, instead, be playing basketball, or rugby, or football, or baseball, or soccer, and perhaps he’d be good. He’s the son of an Olympian, after all, and he grew into a 6-foot-5, 205-pound menace. He’s equal parts bull and artist, burly and nimble, powerful and deft, seemingly built for a number of American sporting staples.

But he is here in Tokyo, two matches away from a second Olympic gold medal, because he was raised in a handball factory.

Danes were some of the first to codify the sport in the late 19th century. They still play it prolifically today. Hansen took to it at a young age, just as many of his peers did, and sharpened himself against rival youth teams in an area known as Denmark's “handball belt.” He ultimately made the national team, and won back-to-back world championships, and scored hundreds of goals, including eight in a 31-25 Olympic quarterfinal victory over Norway on Tuesday.

He is brilliant, perhaps the greatest ever, because physically and mentally, he has everything American sports crave.

And because institutionally, he had everything that would-be American handball stars don’t.

Jacob Holm (32) and Denmark won the men's handball gold medal in 2016, and they're in the semifinals in Tokyo. Perhaps they can explain why the United States stinks at this sport. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Jacob Holm (32) and Denmark won the men's handball gold medal in 2016, and they're in the semifinals in Tokyo. Perhaps they can explain why the United States stinks at this sport. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Every fourth year, when the Olympics roll around and handball pops up on secondary U.S. TV channels, Americans wonder why this seemingly quintessential American sport isn’t more popular in the States. They wonder why the U.S. isn’t any good at it; why the U.S. men haven’t qualified for the Games since 1988, when they lost all six games with a goal differential of minus-47.

What these Americans fail to realize is that the athletic prowess and rhythms they see on TV — the football-like collisions, the basketball-like ball movement, the soccer-like spacing — aren’t what govern international success in sports.

Institutional knowledge, support and investment do.

Denmark, a Scandinavian nation of 6 million people, has all of it. The Danes have become the dominant force in a sport that across Europe is extremely popular. The reason? “It starts in the youth,” national team head coach Nikolaj Jacobsen said Tuesday. “We have a very good foundation. We have a lot of good clubs in Denmark, who are very good in education, and good trainers. So I think it starts there.”

Added Jacob Holm, Hansen’s running mate, who also scored eight goals on Tuesday: “We have a lot of good coaches in almost every club in our country. We have a good foundation.”

The foundation creates pros, who in turn inspire more future pros. “When you have a good national team, as we have,” Jacobsen said, “the young players have some idols they want to look up to.” And boom, the cycle begins to churn on its own. Success begets success, and also investment, which begets more success. And a “golden generation” of players arises.

The pattern, Jacobsen said, is “like you have in basketball” in the U.S. And it’s what the U.S. has never had in handball.

In the U.S., a different type of self-perpetuation cycle churns. The game was invented in Europe — and not in countries where waves of emigrants found their way to the United States. So U.S. grade schools and colleges, which have been primarily responsible for producing U.S. Olympians, never sponsored the sport. All the kids physically capable of excelling in it were and are instead funneled to football, basketball and baseball. So American stars never emerged. So American media never gave the sport a spotlight, even though many who do give it a shot come away enthused. It’s fast-paced and relatively intuitive. Bodies fly and crash to the floor. Like in basketball, attacking players probe a defense, draw help and kick — or win one-on-one battles and launch acrobatic 60-mile-per-hour shots.

And yet only one American reporter, of the hundreds here in Tokyo, attended Tuesday’s quarterfinal, while dozens of European media members did.

There is a perception that American NFLers and NBAers could walk into the sport and own it. That perception is somewhat misguided, but not entirely so. The skills translate. “They are always welcome to play a match,” Jacobsen said of basketball stars. “They can start against our youth national team, and I will almost bet anything they can beat them.”

But of course, talent isn’t the problem. It never is for a country of endless riches and 330 million people. Team USA has won Olympic medals in 51 sports, and all but two of the ball sports that have ever graced the Games. One is table tennis. The other is handball.

The problem is the systems to find, nurture, and support the talent. Denmark, and the other Olympic medal contenders here, have those systems embedded in their sporting cultures. The U.S. barely has them at all.

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