Friday, October 31, 2008

Beijing Report: 08-11-08

Team handball is the Olympic equivalent of inadvertently brushing up against your great-aunt Mildred's breasts as you lurch across the Thanksgiving Day dinner table for your fifth refill of Safeway brand Merlot. Awkward glances are exchanged and then averted, and everyone feels a little uglier as a result. This has happened to me more times than I care to mention, but may explain the hefty birthday cards I received throughout my young adulthood. Nothing, on the other hand, can explain the existence of a sport like team handball.

The Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium is located in the heart of Beijing and it is where I got my first look at this awful and confusing spectacle. I am not one for alcohol fueled jingoism, but even I could see that this was a direct affront to anything that a genuine American might hold dear. The gym was a cacophony of low level meth dealers, Euro-trash go-go boys (the nylon sheen of their sky blue Addidas sweat suits a persistent reminder of the failure of Old Europe), and the bleary-eyed and bewildered families of those doomed to participate in this godforsaken mess.

I was fortunate enough to be seated, by formal invitation, next to Jacques Rogge, the current IOC President and an ardent team handball enthusiast. During an earlier interview we had nearly come to blows over what I perceived to be the sport's long term and catastrophically deforming effects upon western civilization, but his deep appreciation of my red Volvo functioned as a touchstone between us, and the residual tension was no match for his fine gifts of opium infused Tsingtao and two, startlingly well read, Thai hookers.

"You must know yourself to know this game," he said, caressing my shoulder in that effervescently gay manner that orthopedic surgeons from Belgium tend to have. "It is philosophy in motion."

Professional decorum combined with the Tsingtao, which by this time had cost me the use of my legs, to create a situation in which I had no choice but to sit through the Championship match between Slovenia and Portugal. Chan had warned me on several occasions about Rogge's tactics and their dire consequences but, as Hunter used to say: Buy the ticket, take the ride. And so here I was.

Team handball is an unfortunate combination of all of the worst aspects of basketball, lacrosse, modern dance, Canadian sketch comedy, and public drunkenness. Fourteen hideously unitarded players pirouette up and down a 20 by 40 meter court, in a jagged flash of tip-toeing and jazz hands, only to break into a gruff post-up style game that resembles nothing more than a prison strip search. Movement away from the ball is practically non-existent until an elfin figure appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and sashays toward the goal, whipping the ball behind his neck, past the startled goal keeper, and into the back of the net. This was followed by another fifty-nine minutes of precisely the same behavior; behavior that even Nathan Lane would deem superfluous. I sank deeply into my seat, massaged my lifeless legs, and pondered the implications of this unlikely sport.

Hanflugen, as it was originally called, arose in 1510 in the tiny hamlet of Laxcombe near modern Irkutsk. Initially conceived of as an initiation rite for Quaxtic monks, just prior to their entry into manhood through the Festival of Cats, it was adopted by the explorer Juan de Grijalava and brought to Mexico, where it thrived for many centuries. Today's "modern" team handball is clearly an offshoot of this rich Mexican heritage combined with the fluorescent subterranean homoeroticism of pre-war Europe. From there it was a straight shot to the farmlands of the Eastern Bloc and the impossible glory of the Olympics.

When the match was over, Rogge leaned over and angrily insisted that this sport means more to more people than penicillin. Maybe he is right. The next day at the hotel I came across a wildly optimistic report in which the website had this to say:

Whether you’ve been a Team Handball fan your entire life, or just discovered the sport flipping through channels yesterday, you’re soon going to have to come to grips with the stark reality that the Olympics are over and along with that fact, so is your opportunity to watch the sport on TV in the U.S-- at least in the immediate future.

I have to say that I am intrigued by the idea of countless people forced to deal with the stark reality of a team handball free fall schedule on Fox or the WB this season; of the many silent dinners endured by families trying to reconnect after the senseless devastation of Ireland's upset win over Lithuania; of the ennui that settles like a fog over the barren landscape of the true fan's immediate future. It is a sad and beautiful world.

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