Hand it to handball, the sport has a new fan.
After a week of trolling the Olympic Green and hitting the nightlife scene for stories (hey, someone's got to do it), I finally had the opportunity to attend my first event of the Olympics. I originally planned to go to Thursday night's tennis match between James Blake and Roger Federer. A torrential storm forced me to audible.
The night was mine to enjoy, and I chose the sport I knew the least about: handball. All I knew was that it involved a lot of hands, a ball and a goal, seemed simple enough. Although missing Blake's upset victory over Federer was upsetting — although I don't think I could have endured the three-plus hour rain delay — I thoroughly enjoyed my crash course in handball.
Here are the things I learned and a few observations after watching the last moments of the Denmark-Russia thriller and the testy France-Croatia showdown:
- The game is physical. No shoulder pads, no helmets, no protection (couldn't confirm the use of cups, though). Denmark's Jesper Jensen looked like he had just survived a mixed-martial arts tussle. He had two big cotton swabs stuffed up his nostrils to stop a bloody nose. And as some kind of ominous omen, a stretcher was placed beside one of the team's benches.
- What's the best way for a newbie to describe handball to a newbie? Imagine if basketball had mated with soccer, its spawn would be handball. That's the best way I can describe it.
- There's a lot of falling and tumbling, which means one of the four volunteers on the floor has to run onto the floor to wipe and dry off the sweat. This happens every other minute, at least.
- There's a lot of scoring, perhaps serving as a counterbalance to Europe's most popular sport, soccer. A good save percentage for a goalie? Thirty percent.
- Croatia and France could meet again in the final, a treat for hardcore handball fans. Thursday's game featured one yellow card, one red card and a Lou Piniella-like blowup by a Croatian assistant coach.
- Nothing beats a buzzer beater — in any sport. You didn't have to know the rules to know that Denmark broke Russia's hearts after scoring at the buzzer to win 25-24.
- No surprise that the stadium was half full (or empty), which was a sore point for a group of Dane fans. It seems like my journalist credential opens up the floodgates of frustration. The group grumbled that many of their friends were at Denmark's HQ, a local bar in Beijing, watching the game because they couldn't get tickets. "There aren't enough fans!" one man lamented.
- The atmosphere felt like a high school basketball state tournament, complete with the rotation of spectators after each match and the choreographed chants at opposing fans. The only difference? The 5 RMB beers that fueled those fans.
- For what they lack in skill and coordination, the cheerleaders, many of whom are volunteers from universities, sure make it up with enthusiasm and earnestness. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders they are not.
- There is cheering in the press box, which is a no-no in the U.S. During the France-Croatia match, a group of Croatian journos were dressed up in their team colors and cheering openly. But that wasn't the oddest sight in the press area. There was a man with painted eyebrows.
I'm planning to start a pickup handball league once I return home.
So what's the appeal of handball?
I'll let Juli Gudmundson, a Los Angeleno who was also experiencing handball for the first time, answer.
"It was a combination of a lot of sports, it had something good from each one," Gudmundson said. "Those guys are amazing athletes ... I could have stayed here all night."
But alas, the night had to end. As I left on the crowded media bus, I chatted up some employees of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting. They recommended that I come back for the women's matches.
Why, I asked.
"Because they're naughty," a journalist who had overheard our conversation said with a smile. "It's like mud wrestling, like a cat fight."
I'll be back.