Gro Hammerseng is the Kobe Bryant of Women's Handball
The Norwegian women's team handball practice attracted about the crowd you'd expect when one of the best handball teams in the world takes the court for training. There were seven journalists from Norway, one from Finland, and a blogger from the Washington Post.
I actually had been looking for the Danish men's team, but you find the handball practice you deserve, and anyhow, the Norwegian women offer plenty of story lines: a world power, shut out of the 2004 Games entirely, 1-1 vs. Russia in the finals of the last two major championships, and now back in the Olympics, where a non-medal finish would be considered catastrophic back home. Perfect, right?
"The problem is, they're quite boring," said one Norwegian media member, when I explained what I was looking for.
Ok, boring isn't good, and on the surface, Team Norway offers all the free-wheeling good humor of a Chinese Internet cafe, with few smiles during training and a relentlessly "one match at a time" message to the press.
"No, we are just professional I think," many-named veteran Else Marthe Soerlie Lybekk told me when I asked about their seriousness. "We have a very good team spirit, and we have a lot of fun."
But fear not, for at least there's Gro Hammerseng, regarded as the best player in the world.
"Noooo," the reigning world player of the year told me, to that accusation. "No no no. Who told you? That's not true. Really."
Turns out Hammerseng is incorrigibly self-effacing, insisting to me that she's hardly even a celebrity back home. The Norwegian media members disagreed, calling her easily one of the 10 biggest athletic stars in Norway, and claiming that virtually every Norwegian would recognize her on the street. Nearly half the country watched Norway's 1999 world championship victory on television, and media members said it is behind only cross-country skiing and soccer in popularity.
And Hammerseng has the resume to be a sensation among politically concerned Americans. She and several teammates have enrolled in an Amnesty International campaign concerning Chinese dissidents, and Hammerseng is openly gay, dating and living with teammate Katja Nyberg, which has perhaps made both a bit leery of the press.
That press, incidentally, found the presence of a Washington Post employee quite amusing. Team handball is one of two sports at these Games with no American representatives, along with rhythmic gymnastics, and as a result the U.S. media will only cover those events with an amused eye. A colleague, for example, just asked me if handball was like dodgeball.
NRK, Norway's national broadcasting company and Olympics right holder, asked Hammerseng if she'd let me interview her on-air in English, as something of a stunt. She declined, saying she was concerned her English was not good enough to handle technical handball questions.
So the station instead interviewed me about how Americans regard team handball, and then took some long-distance shots of me interviewing Hammerseng. I asked her to summarize the sport in one sentence for novice American fans.
"It's all about getting the ball inside the goal," she said. "You should try it."
August 7, 2008; 1:14 PM ET
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