Former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, appearing on the podcast “Pardon My Take”, said he believes he could put together a team that would win gold in Olympic handball (or, as we tend to call it to distinguish it from a sport played against a wall, “team handball”).
The podcast hosts were happy to go along with their guest, saying a team of Cutler, Patrick Mahomes and LeBron James could defeat any team in the world because people in other countries lack arm speed. Former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth agreed, saying on ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” that he could replace Mahomes in that trio and emerge victorious.
“You know who plays handball?” Foxworth said. “People who couldn’t make it in soccer, couldn’t make it in football, couldn’t make it in basketball.”
One prominent basketball player emphatically disagrees.
“(N)o chance! people dont know how hard is to play handball,” tweeted Dallas Mavericks player Luka Doncic, who played a bit of handball growing up in Slovenia.
Foxworth’s co-host, Sarah Spain, cast cold water on the idea, pointing to a crew of NFL players who have tried their hand at curling with little success so far. That team initially consisted of former Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, former St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger, former Tennessee offensive tackle Michael Roos and former Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck.
Allen and company made their top-level curling debut in November 2018 against Olympic gold medalist John Shuster and predictably lost. The team also entered the 2019 Challenge Round, a qualifier for the national championships, and lost its three games by a combined score of 27-2.
This year, Allen has brought in Jason Smith, who played in the 2010 Olympics with Shuster and team coach John Benton, to skip the team. The results haven’t been much better through the season, though it did pick up a couple of wins in small events and one win in the 2020 Challenge Round.
Curling took advantage of the publicity boost, though, with Allen appearing at the national championships as an alternate for one team and getting an opportunity to come in and play at the end of a game whose outcome wasn’t in doubt.
The handball community has similarly perked up with Cutler’s commentary. Team Handball News took issue with some footage in the ESPN analysis, saying it was from a residency program at Auburn instead of the current U.S. national team.
The Pan American Games, bringing together athletes from North America, South America and the Caribbean, are an interesting grab bag of events: Olympic sports bringing in the top-ranked athletes in the hemisphere, Olympic sports that are much lower on the priority list for world-class competitors, and non-Olympic sports such as racquetball, water skiing and basque pelota.
The program fluctuates a bit, and this year’s competition in Lima, Peru, featured a staggering 419 events, up from the 364 events contested in Toronto four years ago and far more than the 339 events on the Tokyo 2020 schedule.
One thing that doesn’t change in the Pan Am Games is the U.S. dominance in the medal count. The final tally this year: 120 gold medals, 88 silver and 85 bronze. The next-best country, Brazil, earned 55 gold medals, 45 silver and 71 bronze for a total of 171, lagging far behind the U.S. total of 293. Canada (152 total) and Mexico (136) took the next two spots on the medal table.
For some sports, the competition was vitally important. Modern pentathletes Samantha Achterberg and Amro Elgeziry earned spots on the 2020 Olympic team with their performances. Elgeziry took a silver medal in the 2014 world championships while competing for Egypt, then moved to the United States after marrying U.S. pentathlete Isabella Isaksen. Elgeziry and Isaksen also combined for gold in the mixed relay.
Some events offered Olympic quota spots, ensuring a place for at least one U.S. athlete in the event in 2020. U.S. shooters nailed down seven spots. Other U.S. athletes earned spots in archery, equestrian, sailing, shooting and water polo.
In other sports, with less at stake, the U.S. didn’t send its top athletes. One exception: Swimmer Nathan Adrian followed up his world championship relay medals with six medals in Lima, matching the total of fellow world championship medalist Margo Geer.
Most top gymnasts were competing in the U.S. Championships, and yet the U.S. women took the team gold medal and Riley McCusker finished with four medals.
The U.S. sent substantially weakened teams in several sports and posted several results that would be shockers in the Olympics. The men’s and women’s volleyball teams failed to medal. In men’s basketball, a U.S. team composed entirely of current and recent Big East players fell to Argentina by a stunning score of 114-75 in the semifinals, then rebounded to take bronze. The U.S. women, virtually unbeatable with WNBA players in the World Cup and Olympics, lost to Brazil in the final.
On the other hand, the U.S. swept the gold medals in the new Olympic sport of 3×3 basketball and took medals in several sports in which teams would rarely be competitive in the Olympics such as artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming) and men’s field hockey. The women’s handball team narrowly missed the podium, losing 24-23 to Cuba in the bronze medal game.
U.S. bowlers Jakob Butturff and Nick Pate took the doubles bowling gold in unusual circumstances after Puerto Rico’s Jean Perez Faure tested positive for a masking agent. Butturff has won seven PBA events.
The Parapan American Games, for athletes with disabilities, start Aug. 23.
Ingi Olsen may be a bit biased, but he asserts that this is, by far, the biggest sporting event that Greenland has hosted.
“They said yesterday that about half of the population is watching,” the national team head coach said by phone.
And that was just a group-stage game.
Greenland is hosting the Pan American Men’s Handball Championship for the first time. Matches air live on national TV in primetime and are archived on its YouTube page (even the ones not involving Greenland).
None bigger than Saturday and Sunday. Greenland, not all that surprisingly, advanced to the semifinals after beating Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Canada (and losing to Brazil) in its six-team group.
Every win and the one loss were expected. Handball is a national sport in Greenland, which has never played in a Pan Am final. Brazil is the defending Pan Am champion.
The U.S. is not in this tournament after it failed to qualify in April. Greenland, which has about 60,000 people (one-fifth the size of Iceland), beat the U.S. at Pan Ams in 2014 and 2016. (The Greenland women also beat the U.S. in 2015.)
The U.S. has zero Olympic handball medals and an 8-39-1 all-time record in Olympic men’s and women’s play. It hasn’t qualified a men’s or women’s handball team for the Games since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996.
Still, that Greenland can outperform the U.S. in any Olympic sport is an achievement. Credit Denmark, which has four Olympic handball titles.
“A lot of Danish people living in Greenland, teachers and so on, they brought the handball to Greenland, 30, 40 years ago,” said Greenland assistant coach Rasmus Larsen, who said he played in the first 110 matches for Greenland’s national team in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Olsen, a 49-year-old coach who played for the Faroe Islands’ national team and moved to Greenland in 2012 for a job with BankNordik, conceded that his Greenland team will likely be playing in Sunday’s third-place game rather than the final.
Semifinal opponent Argentina reached all 10 Pan Am finals between 1996 and 2014, winning six of them, and was the only North or South American nation to qualify for the last two Olympics.
“We would win once in a 100,” versus Argentina, Larsen said.
Playing for third place is OK. The Pan American Championship is a qualifier for the 2019 World Championship. The top three teams from Pan Ams advance to worlds, which will be hosted by Germany and Denmark. By winning either of its last two games, Greenland will qualify for worlds for the first time since 2007. That’s the goal.
Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark and does not field its own Olympic team. That could change if the Faroe Islands wins its fight for Olympic recognition. Greenland and Faroe Islands athletes have competed for Denmark at the Summer and Winter Games.
“Greenland has, at the moment not any activity going on, regarding to be recognized as an IOC member,” Carsten Olsen, secretary-general of Greenland’s sports confederation, said in an email. “But it is a big wish and we are preparing, in small steps, to be ready if we one day can be recognized.”
For now, the highest level athletes representing Greenland can reach are some sports’ world championships (but not the World Cup; Greenland is not recognized by FIFA) or the Arctic Winter Games.
Greenland hosted the Arctic Winter Games for the first time in 2016, which Olsen called the biggest event in Greenland’s history until this month’s Pan Am Championship. Medal events included dog mushing and the finger pull.
Early forms of handball, an Olympic medal event since 1972, date to ancient Greece. In ancient Greenland, the Inuits would contest village-wide games using a blown-up animal’s bladder or a moss-stuffed skin.
“Handball is still the most popular sport in Greenland,” Olsen said, “but futsal is coming rapidly.”
The Greenland men’s national team includes about 10 players from Nuuk, the capital, another three living elsewhere in Greenland, one in the Faroe Islands and a few who play club ball in Denmark, Olsen said.
“We just went to see the prime minister to have some dried fish and some Greenlandic food, and he had some presents for us,” Larsen said Friday, adding that the PM attended their last two games.
The highlight of Pan Ams thus far was a 31-29 win on Monday over Uruguay, the biggest threat to Greenland finishing second in the group behind Brazil to reach the semifinals. Uruguay tied it 29-all with two minutes left in the 60-minute game before Greenland scored on consecutive possessions, including a clock-expiring dagger from Miki Heilmann.
Players and fans — Olsen estimated 1,500 squeezed into Inussivik, but the official figure was 1,920 — celebrated while the traditional post-game music played — “Kalaallit Nunaat Pillugu” by Julie Berthelsen, so famous in Greenland she goes by one name. Julie also sang the national anthem for Greenland’s first match of Pan Ams.
“One hour after the [Uruguay] match was finished, almost nobody left the building,” Olsen said. “They were celebrating with the boys, the victory, as if we already came to the world championship.”
Iceland’s tourism board has a banner to the right of the arena scoreboard with its slogan, “Inspired by Iceland,” peering to the court.
While much of the world is fixated on that nation’s soccer story, those in Greenland, especially those standing and waving the Erfalasorput below that advertisement, are rallying around their handball team. The differences are many — starting with sport visibility and revenue, plus the lands’ identities (“Iceland are vikings,” Larsen said. “Greenland are Inuit. It’s a different way of life.”)
But there are also similarities.
“They’re playing with their heart, a small country against the rest of the world,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to copy the spirit.”