At the start of Germany's professional handball season on Sunday, more than 30,000 fans gathered in the Schalke Arena in Gelsenkirchen, setting a world record. But only 90 years ago, handball was a womens sport.
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Handball is no new invention. Different variations of the game were already known in antiquity. But today's definition of handball can be traced back to the Womens' Committee of Berlin-Turnrath, named for the Berlin neighborhood where the game was invented by Max Heiser in 1917. Beginning on Oct. 29 of that year, the game became a harmless alternative to the rough male sport known as soccer.
Of course, the new rules were written for the special needs of women. The women weren't allowed to fight for the ball and the large ball size (71 centimeters) ensured that a good number of women actually got their hands on it. By comparison, today's players use balls that are about 15 centimeters smaller.
New rules for men
In 1919, Berlin gymnastics teacher Carl Schelenz completed the rules and introduced a larger playing field to the game. Around that time, men began to take an interest in the sport, and in February 1920, the first hall and field handball games took place in the city.
A picture from the past: field handball as played in 1955 in Duisburg
In contrast to the indoor games, the field games have lost much of their popularity. "For a long time, Germany was a clear favorite in field handball," said Uwe Stemberg, games director for Germany's professional handball league. "But you have to realize that the teams had to play on a field of about 120 or 130 meters. You could really only see the exciting plays as they got to the goals. For spectators sitting midfield, the game wasn't very exciting. Fortunately, that's different with the indoor version."
Fritz Fischer, an archivist for the German Handball Association, believes Germany's often rainy and cold climate led to the shift indoors. "Other countries just ignored us back then as field handball players," he said. "The Nordic countries, especially, saw no reason to play the sport outdoors given their cold weather. Early on, they preferred the indoor version of the game."
During the past several decades, handball has developed into a recognized and serious competitive sport that is also part of the Olympics. The teams adapted to the new conditions long ago. Whereas the game was something people just did for fun in the old days, handball is played more aggressively on the field today.
Indeed, modern handball bears little resemblance to the sport designed for dainty women. "The moves have also gotten a lot faster and good technique is essential for success," said Stemberg. "If you take a look at a 10-year-old handball video and watch the game, it sometimes looks like a bunch of old men playing the game."
A dangerous sport?
Rüdiger Schmidt-Wiethoff, an orthopedic doctor at the College of Sports in Cologne, describes handball as a sport whose players are "enormously prone to injury." Professional handball players are often injured from falls or direct contact with other players. The sport can also lead to chronic injuries and is more dangerous than other repetitious sports. "With tennis, for example, chronic injuries are also common, but in contrast to handball, acute injuries are a rarity in tennis," the sports doctor said.
Despite such dangers, handball is a popular sport around the world with many fans, especially in Nordic countries like Sweden or Denmark. "In Iceland, handball is more popular than soccer," said Stemberg of the German professional league. But such popularity is still a dream for German handball players. "We can't compare our sport with or measure it against soccer. There's no way this sport will ever be as popular as soccer. Nevertheless, handball is already the second-most popular ball-oriented sport in the country."