Under-the-radar sports you should check out during the Tokyo Games

Under-the-radar sports you should check out during the Tokyo Games

Have you ever watched handball? No? Well, what are you waiting for?

Denmark’s left back Mikkel Hansen celebrates a goal during the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship final match between Denmark and Sweden.
Denmark’s left back Mikkel Hansen celebrates a goal during the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship final match between Denmark and Sweden.
Image: Getty Images

There are certain sports that are staples of the Olympics, the ones that get on in prime time and take hold of the sports world when they’re going for the gold. It used to be that those sports, like gymnastics, swimming, and track, would only really show up on your TV every so often. Maybe you’d catch something on Wide World of Sports, but it certainly wasn’t like YouTube or dozens of sports channels existed.

Still, there are some sports that you still just don’t see much of outside of the Olympic cycle. The same explosion of technology allows us to see every sport in the Games, even if they’re hardly ever on American television, and getting reunited is one of the best parts of the Olympics.

Let’s get caught up on some of our favorite sports since the last time many of us saw them, shall we?

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Handball

Handball

Sweden’s Albin Lagergren attempts to score past Denmark’s goalkeeper Niklas Landin Jacobsen during the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship final match between Denmark and Sweden.
Sweden’s Albin Lagergren attempts to score past Denmark’s goalkeeper Niklas Landin Jacobsen during the 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship final match between Denmark and Sweden.
Image: Getty Images

Every four years, handball comes on and it’s awesome and you can get super obsessed with it for two weeks, and then, at least in America… it pretty much disappears, because we’re not good at it and don’t even get a team into the Olympics.

When last we saw men’s handball, Mikkel Hansen of gold medalist Denmark was being named MVP of the Olympics. Since then, Hansen has added a third IIHF World Player of the Year award, and MVP honors at the past two world championships (they’re held every two years), both won by Denmark.

France, out of the medals at this year’s world championships for the first time since 2013, will look to rebound from that disappointment by returning to a fourth straight gold medal game at the Olympics.

On the women’s side, France also was the silver medalist at the last Olympics, falling to Russia in the final. This year’s world championships aren’t until December, so reigning world champ is The Netherlands — the team that was fourth in the last Olympics with a bronze medal game defeat to Norway.

It’s the Norway-Russia semifinal that was the match of the 2016 Games, with the Russians stunning the two-time defending Olympic champs in overtime. It’s Norway and Russia who are favored for the gold in Tokyo, as Norway returns most of its core out for redemption, plus 22-year-old Henny Reistad, who was MVP of the EHF Champions League Final 4, leading Vipers Kristiansand to the title alongside the top scorer of the last Olympics, Nora Mørk.

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Archery

Archery

India’s Deepika Kumari.
India’s Deepika Kumari.
Image: Getty Images

South Korea is the dominant force in the sport, with 23 gold medals since 1972, while no other country has more than the United States’ 16 total medals, eight of those gold. In women’s individual archery, South Koreans have won 18 of the last 27 total medals, dating back to 1984 and including 2016’s gold for Chang Hye-jin and bronze for 2012 winner Ki Bo-bae.

If you’re looking for a potentially cool story, India hasn’t won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics for anything since Abhinav Bindra won the men’s 10-meter air rifle in 2008. Deepika Kumari, ranked third in the world, has a chance to change that, not only in the individual competition, but in the mixed team event with her husband Atanu Das, who is No. 13 in the men’s world rankings.

This time, America has its best hope for a men’s individual gold since Justin Huish in 1996, as Brady Ellison, the 2016 bronze medalist behind Ku Bon-chan and France’s Jean-Charles Valladont, is the resining world champion.

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Hockey

Hockey

Dutch field hockey captain Eva de Goede.
Dutch field hockey captain Eva de Goede.
Image: Getty Images

Women’s field hockey might occasionally come your way on a college sports network in the United States, but you’ll never see the men’s game, and you won’t see any Americans competing at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo — just as you haven’t seen American men in an Olympics the U.S. didn’t host since 1956. The U.S. women’s team finished fifth at the 2016 Olympics but did not qualify this time around.

It’s the Netherlands that’s the perennial team to watch in women’s field hockey, with medals in all but one Games since 1984, the current world No. 1 ranking and the last World Cup and European title in tow. Dutch captain Eva de Goede, the 2019 FIH Player of the Year, seeks her fourth medal, and third gold.

The reigning men’s player of the year is Manpreet Singh of India, which has won eight gold medals in hockey but none since 1980. Eighth at the 2016 Games, India comes to Tokyo ranked fourth in the world. No. 1 Australia is the only team ranked higher in Group A. The Aussies had a six-Olympics medal streak end with a 4-0 quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands in Rio, thwarting a semifinal matchup with eventual silver medalist and current world No. 2 Belgium.

The gold medalists from 2016, Argentina, are back, but without that tournament’s top scorer, Gonzalo Peillat, who has had disputes over the national team setup and bowed out. Could Argentina’s home loss to India in April signal a changing of the guard? Perhaps.

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Trampoline

Trampoline

Canadian trampoline champ Rosie MacLennan.
Canadian trampoline champ Rosie MacLennan.
Image: Getty Images

The United States has never had a medal in women’s trampoline, which debuted in 2000, but Canada has been on the podium all five times, including Rosie MacLennan winning the last two golds — the first Canadian ever to win in an individual sport at back-to-back Olympics. MacLennan was the bronze medalist at the 2019 world championships, where Hikaru Mori of Japan triumphed. It’s the 21-year-old Mori who poses the biggest threat to MacLennan’s bid for a three-peat in the bouncy arts.

Gao Lei of China settled for the men’s bronze in Rio, and since then has won all three world championships. Still, to get over the Olympic hump, he’ll have to deal with defending gold medalist and half of the current world silver medal synchro pair, Uladzislau Hancharou, not to mention his Belarussian teammate Ivan Litvinovich, the runner-up to Gao at worlds.

And, of course, there’s the GOAT, 32-year-old Dong Dong, the three-time world champion who has won medals of every color at the Olympics (gold in 2012). After being the oldest competitor in trampoline at Rio, Dong plans to retire after Tokyo.

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Modern Pentathlon

Modern Pentathlon

Australia’s Chloe Esposito.
Australia’s Chloe Esposito.
Image: Getty Images

Almost nothing about this sport makes sense aside from the 200-meter freestyle swim. There’s fencing — épée, to be precise — in which competitors square off in a round-robin of one-minute matches where if nobody scores a touch, both lose. There’s part of it that’s show jumping, with a horse that gets paired with the athlete 20 minutes before the competition. And there’s a run-and-shoot. Not the Houston Oilers’ offense in the Warren Moon era, but running and shooting… with a laser gun? There’s a laser gun. Find another sport that has show jumping and laser guns.

This is all supposedly a tribute to the skills needed by ancient Greek soldiers, but it feels a lot more like a prank.

Chloe Esposito of Australia is the defending women’s gold medalist, and wouldn’t have been able to compete had the Games been held as originally scheduled because she had a baby last July 29, right in the middle of when the Olympics were supposed to be.

Russians have won four of the last five men’s golds, and Alexander Lifanov, ranked eighth in the world, has a shout at it this time around. Ádám Marosi of Hungary, the 2012 bronze medalist, is the current world No. 1 and edged Lifanov at the world championships in June with superior performances in the swim and run-and-gun — the two are just about equals in fencing and riding.

Did you notice how it’s four events even though it’s a pentathlon? That’s because the running and shooting are combined into one event, so it’s still technically five sports. Nothing here makes sense, don’t try to make it make sense, it’s just glorious chaos and they have it on days 14 and 15 of the Olympics because by then they know that everyone is just going to feel punch drunk off all the sports.

Wait, is there a punch drunk event that can get into modern pentathlon?

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