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A nation that plays the ball- a sport invented by danes

Unknown in many parts of the world, but ubiquitous in Denmark. During the winter season, the Danish national sport is handball

By Tina Ravn. Focus Denmark no 4 2011


Suddenly the sports arena was very quiet.

After a close, thrilling match and two periods of extra time, the score between Denmark and South Korea in the handball final at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens was still level at 34-34. The match then had to be decided by a penalty shootout. Each team had five shots at goal to decide who would win gold in the month-long tournament.

The Danish goalkeeper was Karin Mortensen. Even seven years later, the greatest moment of her career is still fresh in her mind:

“I could see the Danish Queen and the Prince consort out of the corner of my eye,” she says, gesticulating with both hands diagonally up and to the right. In Karin Mortensen’s apartment where she is sitting today, there is only her white ceiling to be seen.

“Behind me, there was a group of Danish sailors who had been shouting and cheering wildly throughout the match. Then I focused on the small leather ball and the opponent in front of me,” she says.

The South Korean player shoots – and the first ball whizzes past Karin Mortensen into the net.

The Danish team also scores on their first shot, so the intensity is unchanged when the Danish goalkeeper defends her goal against the second shot.

It is kept out of the net by Karin Mortensen’s right foot. The opposing team’s next shot doesn’t find the net either, being blocked by the goalkeeper’s left knee. Since the Danish team has scored on each of their attempts, Denmark wins the Olympic gold medal.

“We threw ourselves into a big pile on the floor and our coach, who had left the field because he couldn’t bear the excitement, came running in. It was pure exultation,” says Karin Mortensen.

Foto: DHF v. Jan Christensen

A team sport for the nation

The cheering was not confined to the sports arena in Athens on that Sunday in August 2004. In addition to the thousands of fans who had travelled to Greece, there were also 1.7 million people watching the match on TV in Denmark. This is not unusual – in January 2011 some 3.2 million Danes – corresponding to 60 percent of the population – watched the men’s handball World Championship from the nation’s sofas. There are few countries in the world where handball is as popular as it is in Denmark.

The game – involving two teams of seven players, plus a lot of speed, tactical adroitness and interplay – has over the years attracted Danes of all ages to sit glued to the TV on sunny Sundays, cheering exuberantly and, if it gets too tense to watch, going out to walk the dog. And unlike football, handball is equally popular with both sexes.

According to Thomas Ladegaard, who has written a book about Danish handball, it is because team sports appeal to Danes:

“Handball is a team sport, because a player cannot succeed alone. The idea of the community where different social classes play together has deep roots in Denmark,” he says.


It was in Denmark that handball took its first tiny steps. Over 100 years ago, two school teachers started to play a handball-like game with their pupils, and when they later lived in the same area, they got to know each other. The first match ended 27-0.

The new game quickly spread to Denmark’s neighbouring countries, and since then handball has developed into a game which requires players with the jumping power from volleyball, the physical strength from wrestling, the tactics from American football, the speed from athletics, and most importantly, the ability to play together.

It was the collaboration on and off the field which originally attracted Karin Mortensen to handball. And it still does.

“The teamwork you have is unique, and that is a large part of the sport. The players have to be able to function together socially, before they can play well on the field,” she says. She started playing in her local club when she was 5 years old, because so did all her girlfriends in the village. So a large part of Karin Mortensen’s childhood took place on a lawn by her school where she and her girlfriends got together to play after the last lesson, and also in various sports halls around the country where competitions were held during holidays.

“I looked forward to every match as if it was christmas eve. The whole team had a nice time together, and before the matches started, we ran around with bags of sweets and peeped at the other teams. The first prize was always awful training suits in pastel shades, and we won lots of them,” she says.

Karin Mortensen’s path went from sports college to unpaid league player, and then to her first professional contract. Ten years ago she was training with her team when the coach suddenly handed a phone to her and said that the national coach was on the other end of the line.

“I was glad I was sitting down,” she says with a smile and continues:

“I could only reply yes, no and certainly, but I had been chosen for the national team.”

And this was how Karin Mortensen was able to replace the pastel shade training suits with one in red and white.


Handball was invented in Denmark at the turn of the last century.

The game is played on a 20x40 metre court with a goal at each end. The teams consist of seven players – one goalkeeper and six field players – who dribble and throw the ball to each other and try to get past the opposing team’s defence. After receiving the ball, players can take up to three steps without dribbling. Handball is a contact sport, but if tackling is too violent, the referee can give a suspension to the player, or a penalty throw, or both.

A handball match lasts 60 minutes, and it is not uncommon for each team to score more than 30 goals before the final whistle in 2011, the number of handball players in Denmark is 119,000 – 58,000 male and 61,000 female Denmark has won 74 sets of medals at the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships. The Danish women’s handball team won gold at the Olympic Games three times in succession in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Most recently, the Danish men’s handball team won silver at the 2011 World Championships.