History of handball

There are multiple reports regarding the founding of the modern game of handball, but it is believed that modern handball was first played towards the end of the 19th century. One early game is reported to have taken place in the Danish town of Nyborg in 1897. In 1926, the International Amateur Athletic Federation created a committee tasked with developing a standardized set of rules. Two years later, during the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the International Amateur Handball Federation (IAHF) was founded. Avery Brundage, the American who would later become President of the IOC, was one of the original founding members and the Federation’s first president. In 1936, Germany added the field version of the sport, played outdoors on a soccer-like pitch, to the Berlin Olympic program; only a men’s event was contested. The sport was then removed from the program. It appeared as a demonstration sport in 1952, before the indoor version of the game – the one played at the Olympics – was added to the Olympic program permanently in 1972. The women’s event was added in 1976.

How it works

In handball, each team has seven athletes on the court at one time (six players and a goalie). The ball is almost always played with the hands. A player may stop, catch, throw, bounce, or strike the ball in any manner and in any direction, using hands, fists, arms, head, body, thighs, or knees. Players typically advance the ball down the court by passing it between each other. A player may dribble it down court as in basketball or run with it, except that in handball, three steps are allowed instead of two (which is the allotment in basketball). Upon first gaining possession of the ball, the player is allowed three steps before he must either dribble, pass, or shoot. A goal is worth one point and the team with the most points at the end of the 60-minute game wins.


In countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Germany, handball is considered one of the top two or three most popular sports. The women’s golf medal match in London, which featured Norway against Montenegro, had an estimated 1.4 million viewers in Norway, nearly a third of the country’s population. In 2013, Norwegian broadcaster NRK reported that six of the 10 most watched sport programs in Norwegian television history were from women’s handball. Similar or even higher percentages have been reported in other European countries, most notably in Iceland, where a reported 85% of the population watched Iceland fall to France in the men’s gold medal match in 2008.

Top teams

The Soviet Union/Unified Team is still the all-time medal leader in handball, having earned eight medals, including five gold medals. South Korea is just behind with seven medals, thanks to six from the women’s team. Since 1992, Denmark and Norway have dominated the women’s field. From 1996 to 2004, Denmark won three straight gold medals, while Norway has won the last two Olympic titles. On the men’s side, the French have been the top team recently, claiming back-to-back gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Handball is one of three Olympic sports in which the U.S. has not won a medal (badminton and table tennis).