It is hard to identify a single sport that gave rise to Handball: the discipline derives from a number of team games in which a ball is passed from hand to hand until it reaches the rival’s goal, on grass pitches and with 11 players on each side. The most similar games are raftball, which arose in Germany in the 1890s, and torball, played by factory workers in Berlin during the First World War as an alternative to Football.
In the late 1910s, Handball was created thanks to the efforts of German teachers Max Heiser and Karl Schelenz, who formulated the rules for women and men, respectively. Schelenz’s prestige meant that the discipline spread quickly across Europe, aided by his students. In 1946, the International Handball Federation (IHF) was founded.
In countries such as Sweden, frequent harsh weather problems and difficulties in sharing grass pitches with Football matches led the use of indoor courts. This new format resulted in an important change, with the size of teams falling from 11 to seven players on each side.
Despite the changes, Handball made its first appearance at the 1936 Games in Berlin as a field event, with 11 players per team. The discipline only returned at the 1952 edition in Helsinki, as an exhibition sport. At the same time, indoor courts in Scandinavian countries filled with spectators to watch matches in the more compact format.
The discipline rejoined the Olympic programme at the 1972 Games in Munich, in the indoor format and with fewer participants per team, and proved popular with the public. Competitions for women only began at the Montreal 1976 Games, in Canada.
Handball courts measure 40 metres by 20 metres, and goals are 3 metres by 2 metres. Each goal is surrounded by a 6-metre clearance area that only the goalkeepers may occupy. To score a goal, players must throw the ball beyond this goal line.
Players can use their hands and arms to pass the ball, but it may never touch below the knee. Once a player has possession of the ball, he or she may hold onto it for up to three seconds and take three steps. After this, the player has to pass the ball again or try to score a goal.
The ball, made from synthetic leather, has a circumference of 58 to 60 cm for men’s games and 54 to 56 cm for women’s games. The matches have two halves of 30 minutes each. As it is a dynamic game, scores are often high. The team that scores more goals wins.
At the Olympic Games, the format for both men’s and women’s games is the same: the 12 countries participating in each event are divided into two groups, in which all teams play against each other. The four best teams go through to the next stage, which is an elimination round, and the best in each group play for gold. The losers in the semi-finals play for bronze.
In the elimination phase, games that are drawn after 60 minutes have extra time consisting of halves of five minutes each. If the tie persists, a new period is played. If there is still no winner, a penalty shootout takes place from the seven metre mark, involving five attempts per team and direct elimination until a winner emerges.