Handball at the Tokyo Olympics: Rules, Team USA History, More

Handball rules promote high-scoring, fast-paced action on the court

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Handball is one of five Summer Olympic sports in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal, and that drought will remain intact at the Tokyo Olympics.

The U.S. men's and women's handball teams failed to qualify for the sixth straight Olympic Games as neither team earned a medal at the 2019 Pan American Games, the regional qualification event. The U.S. has not appeared in the Olympic handball tournament since 1996 in Atlanta, when both the men's and women's teams qualified as hosts. The U.S. has not outright qualified a team for the Olympic handball tournament since the women’s team finished sixth at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

There is still plenty to look forward to in the world’s greatest handball tournaments. From rules to dates to teams, here is everything you need to know:

What are the rules for handball?

Each team has seven athletes on the court -- six players and a goalie -- with players attempting to score goals by throwing the ball past the opposing goalie.

Players almost exclusively move the ball using their hands, but they have other means for advancing and blocking it. A player may stop, catch, throw, bounce or stroke the ball in any manner and in any direction using their hands, fists, arms, head, body, thighs or knees. However, a player may not use any part of their body below their knees to play the ball unless it has been thrown directly at their legs. Players can hold the ball for up to three seconds and can take up to three steps while holding it, but goalies are exempt from this in the goal area. 

Each handball game consists of two 30-minute halves with a 15-minute halftime. Each team has three timeouts and can use up to two in a half. Games can end in a tie in the preliminary rounds, but a 10-minute overtime period will be used for the quarterfinals, semifinals and medal games if the score is even after 60 minutes of play.

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If the score is still tied after two overtimes, the game comes down to penalty throws. Both teams alternately take five penalty throws unless one team scores more than the other could possibly score. If the teams are still locked after five throws, the shootout continues until one team has scored one more goal than the other after the same number of throws.

The high-scoring, fast-paced nature of the game can lead to a winning team tallying 40-plus goals.

In the middle of the bustling International Broadcast Center sits what looks like a little house decorated with Japanese flowers. It’s called “Ikebana,” and here’s what it’s used for.

When will the men’s and women’s Olympic handball tournaments take place?

All games in both tournaments will take place at Yoyogi National Stadium in the Heritage Zone cluster. 

Preliminary play on the men’s side will begin at 8 p.m. ET on July 23, the quarterfinals will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET on Aug. 2, and the semifinals will begin at 4 a.m. ET on Aug. 5. The bronze medal game will take place at 4 a.m. ET on Aug. 7, and the gold medal game will get going at 8 a.m. ET on Aug. 8.

On the women’s side, preliminary play will begin at 8 p.m. ET on July 24, the quarterfinals will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET on Aug. 3, and the semifinals will begin at 4 a.m. ET on Aug. 6. The bronze medal game will take place at 10 p.m. ET on Aug. 7, and the gold medal game will get going at 2 a.m. ET on Aug. 8.

Olympic rings-colored chopsticks, ties, crispy rice snacks and, of course, face masks — these are just some of the things one will find inside an official Tokyo 2020 store at the International Broadcast Center.

What are the groups for the men’s and women’s Olympic handball tournaments?

The 12 teams in each tournament are divided into two groups. Each team will play all five teams in their group in a round-robin format to determine which four teams qualify for the quarterfinals out of each group.

Denmark’s men’s team won the gold medal in 2016, and is arriving in Tokyo Olympics after beating Norway in the final of the 2021 Handball World Championships. 

Here is how the groups shook out for the men:

Group A

  1. Norway
  2. France
  3. Germany
  4. Brazil
  5. Spain
  6. Argentina

Group B

  1. Denmark
  2. Sweden
  3. Portugal
  4. Japan
  5. Egypt
  6. Bahrain

Russia’s women’s team dominated in the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning all eight games it played en route to its first Olympic gold medal.

Here is the result of the women’s draw:

Group A

  1. Netherlands
  2. Montenegro
  3. Norway
  4. Japan
  5. South Korea
  6. Angola

Group B

  1. Spain
  2. Russian Olympic Committee
  3. Hungary
  4. Sweden
  5. France
  6. Brazil
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