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Reporter gets her Olympics kicks from a hands-on game

August 23, 2008 | 10:34 am

Liudmila Postanova, left, of Russia in action against Else Lybekk of Norway during the women's gold medal handball match at the Beijing Games on Saturday.

BEIJING -- The television at home was tuned to the Olympics the other night and I was half-heartedly watching over a newspaper when my 8-year-old son interrupted. “Hey, what’s that sport?”

"Basketball," I answered.

"Then why are there no baskets?” he asked.

He had a point.

I put down my newspaper to take a closer look. A player was dribbling a ball about the size of a basketball, but indeed, at the end of the court there was a soccer net. The player with the ball slammed it into the stomach of the goalie, who doubled over, whereupon the ball sailed into the net.

"Cool," said my son, who, like myself, is largely indifferent to sports.

(I should mention that I’m a Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent based in Beijing, not a sports reporter.)

That was my introduction to handball. And I thought the game deserved a closer look.

On Saturday afternoon, having free time after the men’s soccer final, I slipped in halfway though the women’s handball final between Norway and Russia. I had no problem getting a seat in Beijing's National Indoor Stadium because the area allocated to the U.S. media was empty.

Handball is the one Olympic sport for which there is no U.S. team -- but the country doesn't know what it is missing.

Handball is a great sport. It’s as fast as ice hockey and almost as violent, but not nasty. There aren’t too many rules, so the players grab, slam and head-butt each other -- with nary a whistle from the referee to interrupt the fun.

The game is played on a relatively small court, so you can actually see what’s going on. The athletes jump like basketball players, and dive and roll like football  players.

The Norwegian and Russian women I watched were fast, strong, beautiful, lithe and tall -- but not freakishly tall like basketball players.

Each time they slammed a ball into the net, the crowd was on its feet. There was a lot of activity in the stands by the time Norway beat Russia, 32-27.

The Norwegians joined hands and danced in a circle before grabbing the Norwegian flag and marching around the stadium.

Like most of the press, I usually dash out the moment the match ends, but I stuck around to soak in the atmosphere with the few other journalists, including an Estonian and a Dane. (The northern Europeans are the keenest on handball.)

The men’s soccer final, in which Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0, had a full house at the 91,000-seat Bird's Nest. For women’s handball, only about two-thirds of the 18,000 seat indoor stadium was filled.

For my money, handball was the more moving experience.

-- Barbara Demick

Photo: Liudmila Postnova, left, of Russia in action against Else Lybekk of Norway during the women's gold-medal handball match at the Beijing Games on Saturday. Credit: Srdjan Suki / EPA