Speed, skill and stamina are key attributes for competitors in Handball, a quick and exhilerating team sport. Developed in Denmark, Sweden and Germany in the late 19th century, it was originally played outdoors as field handball. It first appeared at the Olympics at the Berlin 1936 Games.
Did you know?
Historically, the three most successful nations are Denmark, Korea and Russia in the women’s and Russia, Yugoslavia and Sweden in the men’s Olympic competitions.
Handball is considered to be one of the oldest sports, based on a reference in Homer's Odyssey and a third century bronze statuette found in Dodoni.
A beach version of Handball, played on outdoor sand courts, is growing in popularity. Thousands of spectators attend the annual Beach Handball tournament on Weymouth Beach in England.
Handball is played on a 40m long and 20m wide court. The goals at either end are 3m wide and 2m high. The court is divided into two halves, with each goal surrounded by two 'D' shaped areas. The inner D, at a distance of 6m from the goal, is defined by its dark blue colour and is called the goal area, which only the goalkeeper may enter; the outer D, defined by a dotted line at a distance of 9m from the goal, marks the free-throw line.
History of Handball at the Olympic Games
Handball was developed in Denmark, Sweden and Germany in the late 19th century. Originally played outdoors as field handball, the sport first appeared at the Berlin 1936 Games. The modern indoor version made its Olympic debut at Munich 1972. The first women’s competition appeared at the Montreal 1976 Games. Handball has featured at every Olympic Games since.
Find out more about Handball at the Olympic Games on the International Olympic Committee website.
Played on the largest court of any indoor ball sport at the Games, Handball features two teams of seven players passing and dribbling (bouncing) a small ball with their hands. The aim is to throw the ball into the opposition’s goal, which happens often: it is not uncommon to see 50 goals or more in a single match. The goal is protected by a goalkeeper. Only the goalkeeper is allowed in the goal area in front of each goal. However, players may jump into this area when attempting a shot at goal but must release the ball before landing. Matches consist of two 30-minute halves, with the team scoring the most goals the winners.
There is a lot of physical contact in Handball, although the referees may choose not to stop the game as a result of each foul, provided that the team in possession of the ball is not disadvantaged, allowing the game to flow more freely.
Players have different positions and roles on court including backs, wings and a goalkeeper. Typically, all players will play in both defence and attack. Court players may propel the ball with any part of their body above the knee (they may not kick it), but may only hold the ball for a maximum of three seconds, and take a maximum of three steps while holding it. Goalkeepers may touch the ball with any part of the body while in the goal area and are not restricted by the three-second/three-steps rule. A goalkeeper may leave the goal area when not in possession of the ball, and may then participate in the game as any other court player. Court players may not pass the ball back to the goalkeeper when he/she is in the goal area.
The ball is made of synthetic leather and must have a circumference of 58-60cm in the men’s competition, and 54-56cm in the women's competition.
At London 2012, both the men’s and women’s Handball competitions begin with a preliminary phase: the 12 teams in each event are divided into two groups of six, and each team plays every other in their group. In this group phase, teams receive two points for a win, one for a draw and nothing for a loss.
At the end of the group phase the four best teams in each group qualify for the knockout rounds, starting with the quarter-finals. The winners of the semi-finals eventually go head-to-head for the gold medal.
In the knockout matches only, if scores are tied at the end of the match, teams can play up to two periods of extra time, each consisting of two five-minute halves. If the scores are still tied, a 7m penalty shootout is held, with five shots per team. The match then goes to sudden death shots if necessary.
The Handball competition begins at the Copper Box in the Olympic Park. All semi-finals and finals, as well as the men’s quarter-finals, will be held at the Basketball Arena in the Olympic Park.
Two referees oversee each game. They are assisted by a local timekeeper and scorekeeper, two IHF officials and an IHF Match Supervisor.
Keys to success
Handball is a fast and physically demanding game. Players need to have strength and stamina, as well as excellent ball skills and the ability to think on their feet and play tactically as a team.
Breaking the rules
Teams and players can be penalised for a variety of infringements. For many of these, such as touching the ball with a foot, playing too passively or pulling the ball from another player, a free throw is awarded to the opposition.
A player can be warned (a yellow card) for a more severe foul. A player is not allowed to receive more than one yellow card and the team cannot receive more than three yellow cards in total. After that, and in cases of very severe fouls, players may be ‘sin-binned’, which means suspended for two minutes. Players who receive a third two-minute suspension or cause an extremely severe foul, are disqualified from the match (a red card).
Dribble – to move the ball by bouncing it on the floor. Penalty throw – a 7m shot at goal defended only by the goalkeeper, and when the defence illegally spoils a clear goal-scoring chance. Also called a 7m throw. Pivot – an offensive player who plays largely around the opponent’s goal area line; also called a line player. Throw-off – a throw from the centre line, which restarts play at the beginning of each period and after each goal. Two-minute suspension – the punishment for a second warning from the referee, or for any severe foul or unsportsmanlike behaviour.
If you want to find out about handball in your country, including clubs, facilities and coaching schemes, check the website of your National Governing Body. To find out how you can get involved in handball in the UK, go to thegamesandbeyond.com
For more information on the Handball competition at London 2012 and the rules, go to the website of the International Handball Federation, the governing body for the sport.