VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.
In an Olympic rematch of the 2015 Handball World Championships, France once again beat Qatar early on Tuesday morning in Rio. After the game, the Qatari team, which consists mostly of Europeans, marched silently into the locker room, with only a few members stopping to speak to the media. It's hard to blame them, since they know they're going to be asked, once again, about how they came to play for Qatar.
Russian athletes aside, Qatar's handball team may be the most controversial at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Although the sporting world's focus has largely been on Qatar's 2022 World Cup preparations, the Gulf state has invested in sports far beyond football. Last year, it spent some $250 million to host the Handball World Championships. That was 20 times more than Spain spent hosting the same event two years prior.
Unlike football, which has complex rules governing the ways in which players can (but mostly can't) change national teams, handball's regulations are fairly liberal. Athletes are allowed to switch teams as long as they don't play for any other national team in an official match for three years and have lived in their new country for two years. Qatar took advantage of this rule to build what Austrian goalkeeper Thomas Bauer called "a world selection team" at the 2015 championship.
At that tournament, foreign-born players made up about 65 percent of the team's squad. At the Olympics, that number has risen to about 80 percent, with only three natural-born Qataris on the team. The Qatar handball team boasts players born in Croatia, Cuba, Spain, Egypt, Syria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and France.
This strategy of foreign imports paid off at last year's tournament. Qatar made the finals before losing to France, which was a huge step forward from the previous world championship, where they didn't make it out of the group stage after winning one match and losing four. After their 2015 showing, Qatar was criticized for their recruitment strategies. Even then FIFA president Sepp Blatter chimed in, stating, "The fact that sport builds social bridges and brings cultures together cannot be stressed often enough. However, what happened at this year's men's world handball championship in Qatar stretched this notion to the point of absurdity."
The chairman of Qatar Handball Federation, Ahmed Mohammed Abdulrab Al Shaabi, apparently heard the criticism. Last year, he told the media that they had to import talent because "our population is minor with limited human resources." Going forward, he added, "we plan to rely on our youth and players." It's a strategy that has not quite kicked in for Rio.
After the France game, backup goalkeeper Goran Stojanovic, originally from Montenegro, was one of the few players to talk to the press. Like most handballers, he cuts an imposing figure, standing 6'3" and 200 pounds. When asked how the players on the team communicate given their diverse backgrounds, he looked a bit bewildered before replying, "English," as if it was obvious that the Qatari handball team would speak English to one another. (While English is widely spoken in the country, Arabic is its official language.)
Coming out of the locker room and going to the team bus, Abdulrazzaq Murad, one of the team's few Qatari-born players, walked out by himself. He said they speak "English, of course. Or Arabic."
"Do new players get English lessons in Qatar?" I asked.
Murad shook his head in an unmistakable gesture of exasperation. He smiled, stuck out his fist for a bump, and then walked away to the team bus.
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