Gary Hinnes competing during a handball match against Cuba at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 1, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The memory of the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 remains powerful for Staffan Olsson.
Olsson was a member of Sweden’s men’s team handball team, playing for an Olympic medal in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Swedes met Croatia in the championship game, a match that drew a large and noisy crowd to the massive stadium, then the home of the Atlanta Falcons NFL team.
The match was a nail-biter.
Croatia won by a single goal, and after scoring three goals himself, Olsson had his second Olympic silver medal.
“It is a fantastic experience to represent your country in an Olympic Games,” said Olsson, a four-time Olympian as a player. “A strong memory of my Olympic career was how the audience liked handball at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.”
Fast forward 23 years and Olsson, now 55 years old, is the newest member of USA Team Handball. A three-time Olympic medalist and two-time world champion, Olsson was appointed USA Team Handball’s high performance director earlier this month amid high expectations.
“The job means a lot to me,” said Olsson, who is currently in Europe. “It feels like a very stimulating and interesting challenge for me, and I hope to contribute to USA Team Handball through my knowledge and experience of the sport.”
Olsson’s resume is globally impressive.
That silver medal in Atlanta was his second of three won at consecutive Olympic Games, and he won another in 2012 as the coach of Sweden’s men’s team.
Olsson’s appointment with USA Team Handball reunites him with former Olympic teammate Robert Hedin, who is coach of the U.S. men’s indoor team.
News of the hire spread quickly, including through Europe where many of the U.S. national team members are now playing.
“When I first heard the news this past week, I was very excited and immediately reached out to some of my fellow USA teammates about it who were equally as excited,” said Drew Donlin, who helped the U.S. men to a sixth-place finish at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. “As exciting as the news was, it wasn’t extremely surprising because USA Team Handball leadership has been doing a lot of great things for the program lately with help from the IHF (International Handball Federation), all in an effort to raise the level of handball for the U.S.”
The U.S. has not had men’s or women’s teams in the Olympic Games since 1996, and there is a push to dramatically improve the national program as the U.S. focuses on attempting to make the Olympic tournament in 2024 in Paris. And right behind that is the Olympic Games Los Angeles 2028, in which the U.S. will likely automatically qualify both teams as host country.
“We need to ensure that handball is growing in the United States, as America’s next great sport, both in the fact that we need to have more athletes and talent but also that interest in the sport among Americans is growing as well,” Olsson said.
And that will take resources and support, in addition to time, Olsson says.
“These national teams’ strength is that they work hard with the resources that they have,” Olsson said. “To start, we need to give the teams and players more resources and more tools to succeed. That is very important. In order to grow a sport like this, you need to work very hard with a lot of patience.”
Donlin sees the arrival of Olsson as one of those crucial resources.
“I think the biggest message that the hiring of Mr. Olsson conveys to everyone in the USATH program, as well as others in the global handball community, is that the U.S. is taking the development of handball seriously,” Donlin said. “Mr. Olsson’s resume speaks for itself and the fact that people like him and coach Hedin, who could both easily be spending their time and effort with other players and teams around the world, want to help us and believe that we can be successful, gives us players a lot of confidence.”
“We are so excited to have one of the greatest handball players and coaches come aboard and join our team,” USA Team Handball CEO Barry Siff said in the statement announcing the hiring of Olsson. “I have no doubt that he will make an incredible impact on our players, coaches and staff.”
The path toward another Olympic Games will be packed with challenges.
“We need to work very closely together,” Olsson said. “I can provide knowledge and experience from playing and coaching the sport, but it needs to be done in harmony with the marketing, communications, operations and everything else from USA Team Handball’s staff."
The building of that staff began even before Olsson was appointed. Michael Wall, formerly a chief legal officer for the Boston Bruins and TD Garden, and Tracy Deforge, founder of the Boston chapter of Women in Sports and Events, were named to the USA Team Handball board of directors in August. Melissa Zhang was hired as full-time communications manager.
“I think we have a lot of the right pieces in place now to start making serious improvements in the development of our program,” said Donlin, who is a captain in the U.S. Air Force and is a member of the Air Force World Class Athlete Program playing handball overseas in Spain. “The combination of support from the IHF and strong leadership and organization in the federation has been tremendous. As players, our job is to work as hard as we can under the direction of Mr. Olsson and coach Hedin, who we know will put us in the best possible position to be successful.”
Olsson will head up the programs for both the men’s and women’s teams. The women’s team nearly won a medal at the 2019 Pan American Games, finishing fourth for their best result since 2003. Two women’s teams, a junior squad and youth squad, are headed for the North American and Caribbean IHF Trophy tournament in October in Montreal.
“Both men’s and women’s national teams have made progress,” Olsson said. “It is also very positive that the United States was represented in the U-21 world championship event.”