Handball: Recognition eyed in English-speaking world

LONDON Sun Aug 5, 2012 4:00am EDT

Felipe Ribeiro (R) of Brazil scores against goalkeeper Carlos Matias Schulz of Argentina during the men's handball gold medal match at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara October 24, 2011. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Felipe Ribeiro (R) of Brazil scores against goalkeeper Carlos Matias Schulz of Argentina during the men's handball gold medal match at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara October 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Moraes

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LONDON (Reuters) - British rapper Dizzee Rascal says it all for handball at the Olympics - his hit "Bonkers" blares out across the arena at London 2012.

Fast, physical, fun and just a little bit crazy. The formula works a dream in "The Box That Rocks" in the Olympic Park and players are hoping the sport gains more recognition in Britain and the United States thanks to its Games exposure.

The Copper Box, which is hosting the London handball tournament, may look like an aircraft hangar from the outside but inside it is exploding with action.

High fives. Manly hugs. Pumped fists. That is just the players getting together before the match has even started.

Fast breaks. Turnovers. Steals. It has a language all its own but British fans, who previously knew little about the sport, have soon caught on to the infectious mix of basketball and soccer.

Argentina player Matias Carlos Schulz told reporters: "It would be great if more countries came to play handball. The USA would be great and China of course."

Britain had no real handball teams before the Games and had to practically invent a men's and women's lineup from scratch to compete as host nation. Yet now the arena is always packed as fans clap to the obligatory chorus of "We Will Rock You" by Queen.

Players hurtle across court at breathtaking speed, ducking and diving, swerving and sliding. They power the ball into the net.

This is a real contact sport - but the gladiators are ever so courteous after crashing into each other. Tough but fair.

Matching basketball's popularity would be a dream for Sweden handballer Magnus Jernemyr.

"Everybody I speak to who has never seen handball before says they love it," he said.

"I live in Barcelona. The LA Lakers come every year in October for two weeks and it's crazy. It's so big and so popular. If only handball could be a big sport in the States."

Handball, most popular in continental Europe, has a rich and intriguing history - and it even spawned two hit movies based on true stories.

"Forever The Moment" was a box office hit in South Korea after the country won a silver medal in the women's tournament at Athens in 2004. Sacked coaches, young inexperienced players and gnarled veterans battle their way to glory. Think Rocky meets the Jamaican bobsleigh team.

"Machan" is all about Sri Lankan emigrants to Germany and another bumpy road of handball triumph.

Atlanta 1996 provided perhaps the most emotional real-life story in the history of handball at the Olympics.

Five of the team had played for Yugoslavia at the 1988 Seoul Games three years before Croatia broke away to start a bloody civil war. It was Croatia's first Olympic gold since independence.

Back in London, another landmark is eyed with handball hoping to finally go global.

(Editing by Mark Meadows)

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