When most Americans think of handball, they envision a couple of sweaty guys slapping a small rubber ball inside a concrete gymnasium cubicle. In the larger world, particularly continental Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Brazil, team handball is seen as a dynamic, wildly popular action sport that combines elements of soccer, basketball, and water polo. Played with six fielders and a goalie on each team, with two soccer-like goals and a ball about the size of a volleyball, the game debuted as an outdoor Olympic sport in Berlin in 1936. It has been held as an indoor sport at every Olympics since 1972. The International Handball Federation has 174 member federations, and a recent Danish Cup final drew over 36,000 fans.
And what does this have to do with Auburn?
“For the past year, Auburn University and has been the home to Team Handball USA,” said Dr. Mary Rudisill, director of the School of Kinesiology, which works closely with the team. “Our national team, which will represent our country in the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil, does all of its training here on campus. Our coaches, Javier Cuesta and Christian Latulippe, are internationally renowned, and we also have Reita Clanton with us again at Auburn. Reita was a three-sport star here in the 1970s, excelling at softball, basketball and volleyball. After graduation she was recruited to be part of the first-ever USA Olympic team handball squad and had a great Olympic and coaching career, and she is sharing these valuable experiences with our players. So we’ve got a lot of pieces in place to start something special both here at Auburn and in the United States.”
The biggest problem with team handball in the U.S. is lack of visibility, but people involved in Auburn’s program are determined to change that. That began when Auburn was named the team’s residence after stiff competition from Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.
“Our research infrastructure in the School of Kinesiology is very strong and that really set us apart,” said Rudisill. “Our new 60,000 square foot building features 25 labs focusing on education, research, and development related to movement, health, and sports science. Our clinical and research experiences run the gamut from trying to help an elderly person be well and fit, to motivating the young child to be more physically active, to helping the elite athlete run faster or jump higher and improve his or her range and use of motion. It is this latter emphasis that really separated us from our competition.”
Auburn plans to introduce the sport in various ways to the campus and community, perhaps by having a shortened game at a basketball halftime, or by putting on games and charging a can of food for admission.
“We are getting good support from the Auburn-Opelika tourism people and many others,” Rudisill said. “This is going to catch on. The games typically last about 30 minutes and it is fast-paced, non-stop action. It’s not like there are any timeouts. Although few Americans know it, team handball is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer. In addition to our men’s and women’s national teams, we have also launched men’s and women’s club teams at Auburn to help increase awareness. We are also trying to have team handball taught as a PE course in schools across the state. Our club team handball championships here in Auburn went very well last year, and we will be doing that again in February. We feel the future is bright here for team handball.”