There’s just something incredible about the Olympics. Every four years, athletes from all over the world are driven to succeed in ways most of us can never imagine. We sit on our couches, in bars or at our desks and celebrate the successes and the stories of those who have worked a lot harder for a lot longer than the rest of us – all for the glory of Olympic Gold.
And there are a lot of them.
Many of these athletes play sports I’ve never heard of, much less played or watched. But last week at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, that all changed. It was time to step up my Olympic game and bring home the gold in random sport attendance.
I was lucky enough to be in Rio covering the action for Coca-Cola Journey, so I’m thinking: This should be pretty easy! I stopped by the nearest ticket office and bought tickets to two events. One is a sport that makes me chuckle. table tennis. Or, as I like to call it, ping pong.
Cue everyone telling me they’re totally different. I get it. They have different paddles or something… I think.
The second is handball, a sport I’d never heard of before traveling to Brazil. Well, ok, I’d heard of it – but I clearly had no idea what it actually was. In my head, handball looked a lot like racquetball, but with your hands. Nope, not even close. I figured this out after watching a game (match?) on Portuguese TV. I couldn’t actually understand what the play-by-play guys were saying, but I was pretty sure I heard something that sounded a lot like hand and ball.
Anyhow, so with tickets now in hand, I headed to Olympic Park. As you may have heard, getting around Rio is not easy. I was prepared, though, and left bright and early for my 10 a.m. event. I was dropped off in the vicinity of the venue and managed to follow a few folks in Brazil jerseys. I ended up finding a lovely event worker sporting an “I speak English” sticker, who explained I was in the wrong place. Doh! He directed me to where I needed to go – and after a boiling hot (I thought it was winter here!) 45-minute walk, I arrived at the table tennis (ping pong) venue.
I made my way to the arena. The first match had begun. At this point, I saw two women at a table tennis (ping pong) table doing their thing. The room was subdued, not a lot of excitement. I sat down and settled in. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on. I mean, it looked a bit like the table tennis (ping pong) I played in frat houses back in the day… just much, much faster. The match wrapped up pretty quickly, and I was left feeling a little disappointed. Surely there must be more!?!
There was a 15-minute intermission between matches which, I assume, was to reset the court, um, table, um, paddles? That turned out to be pretty valuable as an English-speaking emcee guy laid out the rules to all of those there who didn’t have a clue how table tennis (ping pong) works. In case you’re interested, a player must win four games – each by at least two points – to advance.
Between matches, they taught us some Samba moves. The person sitting near me said she’d never seen a Samba lesson at a table tennis (ping pong) match before. To which I replied, “Have you ever seen a table tennis (ping pong) match before?” She hadn’t. So maybe Samba at table tennis (ping pong) is totally normal.
Finally, the next match was announced. Players from Japan and Singapore walked out with their coaches to loud music and thunderous applause from their fans. Yes, an uproar. There were people with flags, noise makers – even someone in full-on traditional Japanese dress. I was pretty interested in the fact that both players were wearing KT tape on their legs. Table tennis (ping pong) must be more physical than I realized! The match started, and it was clear it was going to be much more intense than the last. The players were evenly matched, and the rallies went on for 20 shots or more. Back and forth, super fast, and super intense. A shot would miss, a player would shout in triumph, and the crowd would erupt. In the end, the Japanese player moved on to the semifinals.
Denmark fans cheer on their handball heroes in Rio.
Denmark fans cheer on their handball heroes in Rio.
Next up was handball which was, in fact, in Olympic Park. This time I figured out how to use the bus system, which saved me about 20 minutes and 30 gallons of sweat. Seriously, Brazil, what does winter mean to you?!
I arrived in the Arena de Futuro for Denmark vs. Tunisia. I was early, so the arena was pretty empty when I settled in with my Coke and popcorn. As I sat there, I thought about all the empty seats I’ve seen on TV. Would the arena fill up – or would it just be me and the one Brazilian fan sitting on the top row on the other side of the court? I didn’t need to worry. Plenty of people showed up – and most of them were from Denmark.
People from Denmark apparently love handball. A lot. I chatted up two guys decked out in their Team Denmark gear – head-to-toe red clothing – and carrying Denmark flags. I asked them if handball is big in Denmark. Turns out, it’s huge there and across Europe. They told me the sport was actually invented in Denmark (which seems sort of true according to the Internet) – and that their team is one of the best in the world. Apparently, they lost the World Championship last year and are on a mission to reclaim their top standing.
These guys were delightful and really helped out this dumb American, providing a quick tutorial on the rules. Handball is kind of a hybrid of soccer and hockey and rugby. It’s fun, it’s fast – and can be pretty physical! Why aren’t we playing more of this in America?! Oh – and an important rule – the player with the ball can only take three steps before they either have to bounce, throw or shoot. Then they can take three more steps before either shooting or passing. I suddenly understand why we don’t play Handball in America: Math.
The two teams came out to raucous cheers. The Tunisians have a big contingent, as well. The game starts quickly. From what this completely uneducated fan can tell, the Tunisians are big on strategy. They ran a lot of what I think were plays, trying to work their way around the Denmark defenders. Denmark, on the other hand, was full of aggression – plenty of fast breaks and attack moves. Oh, and Denmark has a player who looks a lot like tennis legend Bjorn Borg. Which was cool.
Two 15-minute quarters later (the clock doesn’t stop – just like soccer) and it’s halftime. That Samba video made an appearance here, too. So maybe Samba is big at both Table Tennis (ping pong) and Handball. In the second half, Denmark built up a pretty big lead, so it was time to give the more junior players some playing time.
About this time, I struck up a conversation with a nice French man sitting behind me who is apparently a huge handball fan. He gave me the entire history of the sport and further explained the rules. He told me that handball is the second most popular sport in Europe behind soccer – which doesn’t seem entirely correct according to the Internet. He also told me that Denmark has two of the best players in the entire world: the Borg lookalike and the goalie. I was truly in the presence of handball greatness!
Jenny (right) and her
Jenny (right) and her
The match ended with a big win for Denmark, and their fans roared their appreciation. And honestly, it was a lot of fun. Lots of running, lots of crazy athletic moves and, of course, lots of fun fans.
I can now check Table Tennis (ping pong) and Handball off my sport bucket list. To be honest, I’d definitely continue to watch handball, but pretty sure any Table Tennis (ping pong) viewing will be limited to bars and basements. Overall, it was a fun and educational day. All of the athletes I watched are dedicated to being the very best at what they do – and I can absolutely appreciate that.
What will I see next? Well, I’m not entirely sure. It’s a great big world of Olympic sports out there.
Jenny Wilburn is senior manager of digital communications and social media at The