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In some Olympic sports, the U.S. just doesn't make the grade


The U.S. has struggled in some sports, like team handball, synchronized swimming and field hockey. One handball player wonders what it would be like if LeBron James or Derrick Rose played his sport.

July 16, 2012|By Lisa Dillman
  • Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva compete during the FINA Olympic Games Synchronised Swimming Qualification event.
Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva compete during the FINA Olympic Games… (Clive Rose / Getty Images )

He was the face of the Los Angeles Police Department, and forever frozen in a where-were-you moment, grimly stepping up in front of a media throng on that June afternoon in 1994.

That's when LAPD Cmdr. David Gascon braced himself and announced that O.J. Simpson was a fugitive and that the department was "very unhappy" with the activities surrounding Simpson's failure to surrender.

He pledged that the LAPD would find Simpson, and by nightfall, Simpson was taken into custody, which, of course, is the shorthand version of one of the wilder days in Los Angeles.

And so, who better than a career veteran of the LAPD to try to bring order and stability to a long-struggling sports governing body … in this particular case, USA Team Handball?

First, a question with a question.

"What in the world is the former second-in-command of the LAPD doing running a national governing body?" said Gascon, who is doing it on an unpaid, interim basis. "It's because of the sport and because of all the issues around team handball and failings of team handball. We're all of the mind-set that we need to figure out a way to get this sport at a level that is competitive, first, in the Western Hemisphere and then the rest of the world."

Really, if you can survive the white-hot glare of the Simpson case and less-celebrated ones and 32 years in one of the country's largest police departments ...

Gascon's daughter, Sarah, who has been a USA National Team Handball player and played professionally in Poland, helpfully finished the thought to describe her father.

"After that, you can do anything," she said.

This is the time when the haves and the have-nots of the Olympic movement in this country come into a sharper focus. It happens every four years. That's when the public and the mainstream media, at some point, come to the realization (or simply remember) that the United States won't be competing in every single sport this summer in London.

For instance, in handball, the men and the women did not qualify. The synchronized swimming team did not make it, but the duo of Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva, who took silver in the Pan American Games last year, will be competing in London.

Although the women's field hockey team will be competing in London, there was a great deal of attention when the men's team pulled out of an Olympic qualifying event in February.

The reasoning behind that decision had several components, said Steven Locke, the executive director of USA Field Hockey.

"It was really based upon injuries that we were experiencing with the existing men's team that played in Guadalajara at the Pan Am Games, and with the number of retirements," he said.

"We just really felt that if we went over there, what purpose would it really serve. We were probably just going to get slaughtered. As a result, we wanted to look at our resources and devote them toward development. I think that's probably a wise decision."

Vastly differing circumstances led to the absence in London of another far more high-profile team. The under-23 men's soccer team failed to qualify when it stumbled in CONCACAF qualifying, losing to Canada and giving up a lead to El Salvador in injury time and finishing tied.

It will only be the second time in the last eight Olympics that the U.S. men soccer team did not make it.

Absences have been the norm, not the exception, for team handball. The last appearance for the men's and women's team was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, by virtue of an automatic spot. That year, the men won twice and finished ninth of 12 teams, and the women were winless and finished eighth in an eight-team field.

Last year, the program was hit with a 20% reduction in funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Before that, there were continuing factional and financial issues, and in 2006, the sport's governing body was decertified by the USOC. Bankruptcy was a potential and more recent option but was avoided.

Jordan Fithian, who been playing handball professionally in Germany, has one stock answer and another deeper explanation when he is asked why he won't be in London.

"Those that I can tell are only interested in a short, quick answer, I give the blunt honest truth: We weren't good enough," he said in email from Italy. "Those that are actually interested in the answer I tell them that although we have a core group of guys talented enough to qualify i.e. beat Argentina, Brazil, etc., but we don't have the funding or support to be able to train together enough to be as good as a team.

"As individually talented as our top 10-11 guys are, we don't get anywhere close to enough time on the court together to be able to compete against Argentina and Brazil who have been playing and training together for years. I tell people it's the one downfall of playing a team sport."

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