Last Friday (21 May 2021), the President of the European Handball Federation (EHF), Michael Wiederer, gave an extensive interview to Mannhiemer Morgen, a German newspaper. For the most part, the interview focused on topics directly related to the pandemic and EHF competitions. However, I have been spot on on a few questions regarding handball’s place on the world stage:
Mannheimer Morgan: You are the representative of European handball interests, recently more and more nations like Argentina, Brazil and Egypt have drawn attention to them. How do you rate this?
Wieder: This development is important for the sport, especially for the international market value of handball. Because as long as we are a sport with a European character, marketing opportunities remain limited. Many international companies are not based in Europe. I therefore welcome the developments on other continents. It was a very important step to expand the World Cup to 32 teams.
Mannheimer Morgan: Because handball is so European, Olympic status is constantly discussed. Are you concerned about this?
Further away : We don’t have to worry about that status any more or less than many other sports. We generated great interest at the Rio Olympics five years ago. But it is also a question of internationalization. The world association tries to obtain more starting places for other continents, it would be to the detriment of Europe. As you can see, it’s also about balance, different product interests and a possible narrowing down to a few markets.
Excellent IHF support, but no Olympic ticket
What makes Wiederer’s response noteworthy is that to my knowledge this was the first time in the print media that I had seen publicly acknowledged that the IHF was considering a redistribution of Olympic slots and the impact logic that such a redistribution would have on European nations.
The IHF, of course, has made no secret of its desire to develop new markets in the United States and China. Actions taken to assist the United States include:
- The American Development Project, led by former EHF President Jean Brihault, which provided grants to the United States
- The dissolution of the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) into two new confederations, the North American and Caribbean Handball Confederation (NACHC) and the South American Handball Confederation (SCAHC).
- Selection of the United States as the NACHC representative at the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championships when a competition could not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, while the split of PATHF into NACHC and SCAHC has resulted in new, separate qualification pathways for the World Championships, similar changes have been announced for Olympic qualification. NACHC and SCAHC were still grouped for qualification via the 2019 PANAM Games.
And, anyone who follows handball in Pan America knows that currently it is very unlikely that any NACHC nation will qualify for the Olympics via the PANAM Games. Any NACHC men’s team hoping to qualify would likely have to beat Brazil and Argentina, two nations that would likely be double-digit favorites against any NACHC nation. For the women, that would mean beating Brazil and right now staying under 10 goals would be a major achievement for any NACHC women’s team. For reference, Brazil beat the United States 34-9 in the semi-finals in 2019.
But what if the NACHC were to have its own niche? Well, that completely changes the equation. Cuba would instantly become the NACHC favorite for the men’s and women’s Olympic qualifiers, but the United States would not be far behind. And, any other NACHC nations that have been playing handball for a while could also be considering a legitimate chance to qualify for the Olympics.
How a separate Olympic qualifying slot would help the United States
For the United States, a new path to Olympic qualification would likely lead to changes in terms of budget and budget priorities. For the past 20 or so years, funding from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has been tied primarily to medal prospects. With the United States not even having a realistic chance of qualifying for the Olympics, this resulted in minimal support from the USOPC. That could change, with Olympic qualification suddenly becoming realistic and doable, as the US handball team could make a legitimate case that increased support in key areas could lead to Olympic qualification.
In turn, this could also increase the quality and quantity of athletes playing handball in the United States Historically, one of the main draws to recruiting athletes has been the opportunity to one day be an Olympian. Indeed, at one point, being on the US national team was like being an Olympian. Over time, however, as the prospects for Olympic qualification for the United States have gone from probable to highly unlikely, this recruiting has become less effective, as has the quantity and overall quality of athletes recruited.
IOC pressure and potential European backlash
This was never officially stated, but the IOC reportedly raised concerns with the IHF that handball was too European. And, according to some rumors, this concern even included a warning that handball might be removed from the Olympic programme. It’s hard to believe that handball would really be taken out of the Olympics, but there is some validity to the underlying point that handball is too European. And, if a little pressure from the IOC served as an impetus to put more emphasis on developing an American handball market, I certainly wouldn’t complain. And I also wouldn’t complain if an Olympic berth was awarded to the NACHC, because that would be a phenomenal development for the United States and the entire NACHC.
But who would complain… and loudly? European handball nations; because in most cases this would result in the removal of a slot from a European side.
Current Olympic qualifying slots
For reference, here is how the 12 Olympic spots are currently allocated to men and women:
- Host country (1)
- Reigning World Champion (1)
- European (1)
- Africa (1)
- Asia (1)
- Pan America (1)
- Qualification tournaments (6)
And here’s how the various continental federations have fared in Olympic qualifying tournaments since the current format was implemented in 2008.
- 2020 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
- Men: Europe (5); Pan America (1)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2016 Olympic qualifying tournaments
- Men: Europe (5); Africa (1)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2012 Olympic qualifying tournaments
- Men: Europe (6)
- Women: Europe (6)
- 2008 Olympic qualifying tournaments
- Men: Europe (6)
- Women: Europe (5); Asia (1)
So it wasn’t a clean sweep for European nations, but it was close. If a spot were to be given to the NACHC, it would likely eliminate a European team. A European team that would probably have reached the quarter-finals and had a legitimate chance of winning a medal.
A change in the weather for 2024?
Due to the likely ramifications, I’m not terribly surprised this hasn’t been publicly addressed by the IHF. It’s more often the kind of thing that is discussed informally over coffee breaks and dinners. It’s not the kind of thing that gets enacted until there’s an agreement in principle between the parties involved. Wiederer’s response in the interview is simply confirmation that this discussion has taken place and that Europe is aware of it. In fact, they probably participated in the discussions because they would face the negative impacts.
However, if this change were to be made in time for the 2024 Olympics, time is running out. Under the current qualification system, the 2023 PANAM Games would once again serve as the Olympic Games qualifier for the NACHC and SCAHC. It may take two years, but qualification for the PANAM Games would begin next summer with regional qualification in South, Central and North America. So basically only one year is available to change course and for NACHC and SCAHC to come up with new separate qualification plans. It’s doable, but you’d have to act pretty quickly.
And, barring a change in time for 2024, one might wonder if a change would be made for 2028. Indeed, the NACHC would already have a representative due to being hosted in the United States. Such a change would actually result in 2 NACHC nations participating in the Olympics. Yes, given the sometimes glacial pace of change… this could end up being a game changer for the 2032 Olympics.