DAVID GREENE, HOST:
At the Rio Olympics, the crowds seem to reflect national passions. Chinese fans go wild at table tennis and badminton. Brazilian fans rejoice at beach volleyball and soccer. NPR's Melissa Block, who's covering the Summer Games, wondered, what about Norway?
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Here's an Olympic pro-tip - just follow the Viking helmets.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
BLOCK: If you do, you'll find yourself happily watching a sport that most Americans don't know or care about, but it's huge in Europe and especially in Norway. We're talking team handball. It's a super-fast, action-packed game. It's kind of like basketball without the hoop, indoor soccer without the feet or water polo without the water. And it's all thrill. At team handball, the Norwegian women are crushing it. They've won gold at the last two Olympics. They're hoping for a three-peat here in Rio.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
BLOCK: The basic idea is this - each team has six players on the court, plus a goalie. The handball is bigger than a softball, smaller than a volleyball. A player can only hold onto the ball for three seconds before dribbling, passing or shooting. And the goals come fast and furious.
LINN-KRISTIN RIEGELHUTH KOREN: Oh, we get, like, get between 20 and 30 goals.
BLOCK: That's Linn-Kristin Riegelhuth Koren.
KOREN: Back home, they call me Linka.
BLOCK: she plays right wing for Team Norway.
KOREN: I love it. Yes, I'm lucky. I become a mom in December.
KOREN: Yeah, and I've been fighting my way back to the national team, so it's an honor to play for Norway.
BLOCK: Never underestimate the star-power of Norwegian handball.
TROND SJOBAKK: The girls are heroes back in Norway.
BLOCK: That's the handball team physiotherapist Trond Sjobakk. The Norwegian men's team didn't even qualify for the Olympics, but the women, Sjobakk says, everyone back home knows them on a first-name basis.
SJOBAKK: Nura, Stina, Veronica, Amelia.
BLOCK: They're like the Usain Bolt of Norway.
SJOBAKK: Yeah, that's true (laughter).
BLOCK: So let's ask Linka - what's the U.S. missing by ignoring handball?
KOREN: You're missing a sport that gives a lot of excitement to many people. It's a good sport for people who like to watch and be cheered up and see people be able to have fun together.
BLOCK: I find definite cheer on the faces of mother-and-daughter fans Iris and Iselin Froybu outside the Olympic arena, where the Norwegian women have cruised to the semifinals. The Froybus are decked out in full patriotic regalia. They're wearing hats and shirts and scarves, all patterned with the Norwegian red, blue and white flag, with Norwegian flags painted on their cheeks. Handball is a way of life back home, mom Iris tells me. Like many Norwegians, she grew up playing the game.
IRIS FROYBU: You can play it from the age of 5, 6, you know? And it's very social. And you can play it all over the country.
BLOCK: So far in these Olympics, Norway has won just three Olympic medals - all three bronze - in rowing and wrestling. The Norwegian women's handball team is the country's best hope for gold. They face Russia in the semifinals tonight. The final match is Saturday. Melissa Block, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.
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