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Gro Hammerseng is the Kobe Bryant of Women's Handball

Handball's Kobe Bryant appeared in an Amnesty International campaign to protect Chinese dissidents.

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."

The Norwegian women in action.

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."

Norwegian television interviewing me about handball.

By Dan Steinberg  |  August 7, 2008; 1:14 PM ET
Categories:  Olympics  
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Next: Let Us Welcome Azerbaijan, Norway, South Africa, Etc.


Awesome post!

Apparently handball is even less complicated than baseball: "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."

Posted by: Chris | August 7, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I think you need to keep following this team, Dan. I smell Pulitzer (assuming Pulitzer smells like my cubicle).

Posted by: Lindemann | August 7, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

This is Steinberg's first efforts at becoming a worldwide sensation. Careful DC fans, he might soon get syndicated like Elliot in the Morning.

Posted by: JDP | August 7, 2008 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Please ask Sally Jenkins to go away. No one wants to hear about her China and human rights stories. We are currently engaged in an illegal war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and have routinely denied visas for political activists who criticize the US.

Posted by: Tian Tian | August 7, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Don't know how heavy is that camera, but I'd like to nominate the guy in the lime green shirt for the Man Of The Year award. His female colleague beneath the monstrous camera surely has a stress fracture of the clavicle by now.

Posted by: Throg | August 7, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

did you ask her if she had driven a fjord lately?

Posted by: thigh master | August 7, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm guessing the Norwegian men's team is much more exciting. Making it "regn" in the stripclubs of Oslo, rampant HGH abuse, and a superstar who says he's retiring - but then changes his mind every few weeks - pissing off the entire nation...

Posted by: Stalk Much? | August 7, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Actually handball kinda sucks. I used to live in Romania and it's a big deal there. It is indeed somewhat similar to basketball. Unfortunately it is basketball of the early 1990s Knicks. It's high on novelty so it's interesting to watch for a bit, but when it comes down to it, it's not that great. Perhaps the Winter Olympic equivalent would be curling.

Posted by: Charles Zimbabwe | August 7, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

"You should try it..."

Another blog post handed over on a silver platter.

Posted by: Matt C | August 7, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I want video of steinberg trying to play handball... we need to get one of these nordic ladies to do sort of an instructional session...

Posted by: littles | August 7, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Littles, I like the way you think.

...I miss playing handball.

Posted by: B.A. | August 8, 2008 6:54 AM | Report abuse

You would compare this ( ) to the mind-numbingly boring sport known as curling?

Or as a more boring version of basketball, where you're hardly allowed to tackle anyone?

Posted by: Mallrat | August 8, 2008 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps this will make your next post about handball (assuming there's any) less ignorant:

Posted by: Walsh | August 8, 2008 8:36 PM | Report abuse

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