This isn’t your grade school’s playground handball (those damn sliceys would get me every time), but a legit Olympic sport that’s been around since 1936. Team handball is a better name for a game that resembles water polo on land or soccer without hands or hockey with more teeth (and unfortunately less punching). The seven-on-seven gameplay (six court players and one goalie) is fast, fierce and strategic with an emphasis on dribbling and passing skills, but the big difference between the latter two more popular sports is that there’s a lot of scoring in handball with total goals for a game reaching the 50s and 60s. If you’re a fan of lacrosse, hockey, or the NBA, give handball a look and thank us later.
Who To Watch: While you won’t recognize anyone playing team handball, France are the defending gold medal champs. Sadly, this the only sport that the US failed to qualify for. So….go Croatia?
Most of us have never pole vaulted or fenced, but we damn sure have played ping pong, possibly even without beer and somewhat sober. Sure, “table tennis” is the fancy Olympic term, but we all know what a fold out table top means and it’s ping pong. Although the tabletop and paddle racquets might look like the ones in your patio or garage, the super-action gameplay is anything but, requiring ninja-like reflexes and flick a da wrist shots. The games go by in a blink of an eye as it’s one to 11 points (by a margin of two points) in a best-of-seven match. If there’s any sport that resembles a video game in real life it’s top-level table tennis. It’s absolutely insane.
Who To Watch: China has dominated in a sport that made its debut in Seoul 1988, winning 24 of the 28 golds ever awarded including a clean sweep in London in 2012. Gold-medalist Jike Zhang will return to defend his title in Rio, but keep your eye on America’s Kanak Jha. At 16, the San Jose, CA kid is the first American born in the 2000s to make an Olympic team.
This pedal to the medal sport has been in the Olympic Games since the Athens games in 1896, the first of the modern era. Overlook the spandex and focus on what makes this sport stand out — the need for speed, cut-throat tactics and high-performance bikes with no brakes. If that’s not enough, enter the Velodrome (steeply banked oval track, consisting of two 180-degree circular bends connected by two straights — think a Nascar track, but with neon colors!) There are three individual and two team events for men and women and the racing action is a lot like like roller derby with aggressive bumping, photo line finishes and ugly crashes into walls. The speed and excitement will astound just as much as the size of the competitor’s calf muscles.
Who To Watch: Great Britain won 7 out of the 10 golds awarded at London 2012, but the United States women’s team, who took home the world title this summer, will go into Rio as the gold-medal favorites.
Our favorite combat sport at the Olympics, judo made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo games in 1964. If you’re not familiar with judo, it’s like a hybrid of Greco Roman wrestling and Brazilian Jui Jitsu (in fact, it’s a precursor to both) with explosive throws and powerful grappling. Matches are points-based and can often end in a split second with one competitor landing a huge throw or technical submission. While it has no striking, any MMA fan can tell you how important judo is to the mixed martial arts world as many Olympic judokas have gone on to mainstream MMA and UFC success, including former UFC champ Ronda Rousey, who won a bronze medal at the 2008 games in Beijing.
Who To Watch: As the home country and inventor of the sport, Japan is expected to continue its dominance (70 medals in total since the sport’s debut). But judokas from Europe, like defending gold medalist Teddy Riner and Chrisse Agbegnenou of France, are expected to win gold as well. On the US side of things, defending gold medalist and #1 seed in the women’s 78 kg weight class, Kayla Harrison, looks for another strong showing and is favored to repeat.
The OG to its more flashy beach cousin, the six-on-six action for indoor volleyball not only increases the hottie percentages (beach volleyball is only two-on-two), but it’s also way more fun to watch because the intense gameplay is about power, whereas beach volleyball is more about placement. It also doesn’t hurt that the uniform bottoms are basically hot pants.
Who To Watch: Your eyes will be on the host nation Brazilian women’s team, not only because they’re tanned and toned, but because they’re actually really good, beating Team USA in London 2012’s gold medal match. Unfortunately, the Dominican Republic women’s team didn’t qualify because they have the Gigi and Bella Hadid of the sport in Winifer Fernandez and Brenda Castillo. At least there is google image search.