The memorable moments of this Olympics have started pouring out, as they always do: Katie Ledecky and Lilly King and Michael Phelps in the pool while Simone Biles is doing Simone Biles things. Fencers and shooters have won gold. Meanwhile, track has yet to run a race and there’s still a long list of potential surprise American winners from the sports NBC outsources to the Home Shopping Network.
But far from the American networks, it’s going to be hard to do much better than what happened Saturday in handball. Late in a win over Montenegro, Spanish goalie Silvia Navarro took a shot, fired overhand at maximum velocity from about 3 feet away, squarely on the nose.
A soccer player would have spent 10 minutes writhing in agony before getting stretchered off for an emergency rhinoplasty. (Soccer is a wonderful sport, but it’s true.) Navarro popped up, shook it off and threw the ball up the court without leaving the game. It was truly impressive. Top that, Phelps.
You can learn many things at the Olympics. You learn that while the organizers may have stocked about 17 hot dogs and one order of cheese bread for millions of visitors, there’s always enough beer to go around. The locals were walking about the Olympic Park this weekend with enough beer cups stacked – the low-rent Skol, not one of Brazil’s better beers – to make it look like a very competitive demonstration sport.
And you learn about what we call team handball and the rest of the world calls handball, one of those sports most Americans only see at the Olympics, like curling in the winter. The question is, why? It may not be a quintessentially American sport, but so much about it is quintessentially American.
We need a Manhattan Project for team handball in America, and we need it now.
Basically, on a court slightly bigger than a basketball court, seven players stand around a net and toss a small soccer ball around until, at some signal imperceptible to the naked eye, they all start shoving each other and someone tries to charge through a wall of bodies toward the net, typically throwing it in that general direction while falling to the floor.
It’s like a combination of the line of scrimmage on a running play and a really nasty Y pickup game full of elbows. And that’s the women’s version of the game. The men’s game borders on gladiator combat.
The key actions in the sport are pushing and shoving and falling down, which means Tyler Hansbrough probably would have been the Pele or Wayne Gretzky of handball if he’d been given the chance.
Sometimes, players tripped near the net get a penalty shot, where they stand on a line about 7 inches from the goalie and contort themselves on one leg like one of those air-powered dancing things outside a newly opened car wash. Then they throw the ball past the goalie, who had absolutely no chance to stop it from that range.
It’s the sport Bubba Watson said he wants to see at the games, and if Watson, a noted polymath and aesthete, would rather watch handball than scour Rio for a Waffle House, we’re definitely onto something here.
So, yes, we need handball, and quickly. Neither the U.S. men nor women qualified for Rio and USA Team Handball’s Twitter account has been dormant since February, which is a measure of the task ahead. We need NCAA sanctioning followed by handball diploma-mill prep schools. We need a professional league and replica jerseys and bobbleheads.
People will come. They’ll ignore the confusing rules and embrace the organized chaos. We can raise a new generation of handball players. America needs a sport that rewards being rude and pushy. Unlike soccer, where you have to use your feet and run a lot, these are things Americans are actually good at doing.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock