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Original Issue

Bloc That Shot Eastern European teams seem to have matters well in hand

IN 1984, PETER UEBERROTH, THEN head of the Los Angeles Olympic
Organizing Committee, predicted the time was ripe for the U.S. to
discover team handball, a sport that was popular in Europe. After
all, like many games in which Americans excel, team handball rewards
those who are skilled in throwing, running and intimidation.
But the fast-paced, high-scoring game did not catch on with
spectators in L.A. The most publicized moment of the Olympic handball
tournament occurred in the Cal State-Fullerton gym just after the
Yugoslavian national anthem had been played in honor of the women's
gold medal winners. The exuberant Yugoslavs threw their victory
bouquets to the crowd, and as fans lunged to catch them, a railing
collapsed and a dozen people tumbled eight feet onto the floor.
Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.
Team handball looks something like demolition basketball. Each
side has a goalie and six players who dribble and pass the
cantaloupe-sized leather ball with their stickum-covered hands. A
point is scored when someone heaves the ball into one of the two 6-
by 10-foot cages at either end of the court. Matches consist of two
30-minute periods; timeouts are allowed only for injuries. As in ice
hockey, substitutions are made on the fly, and hard contact is legal
-- to a point. Too much roughness results in a penalty, and the
guilty player's team has to play short-handed.
The Eastern bloc dominates the sport, and the U.S.S.R. dominates
the Eastern bloc. The world champion Soviet women have never lost in
the Games. They won the gold medal in 1976, the first time women's
team handball was contested in the Olympics, and again in '80.
Czechoslovakia, which finished second in the '86 world championships,
and Yugoslavia should give the U.S.S.R. its best games.
The Soviet men took home the Olympic gold in '76 and came in
second to the East Germans in 1980. In the '86 world championships,
however, the Soviets slipped badly, finishing 10th. Coach Anatoly
Yevtushenko replaced several older players with young ones and hired
three new assistants and a team psychologist. With five of their 17
players 6 ft. 6 in. or taller, the Soviets are now the giants of the
sport in more ways than one. They have lost only one match in
international play since Yevtushenko's housecleaning.
Yugoslavia, the men's gold medal winner in '84 and reigning world
champion, will have its hands full when it meets the U.S.S.R. in its
first match, on Sept. 20. Three of Yugoslavia's top players recently
quit the team, saying they were too old for the rigors of the
Olympics. Hungary, East Germany and Spain also have realistic medal
hopes. The U.S. men and women look only to gain more experience in a
sport that is yet to take their country by storm.