Handball is an exhilarating team sport that was first officially played over 100 years ago in 1917 in Berlin. Like many popular athletic activities, the technology, equipment, apparel, and especially the shoes, have continually evolved to draw out maximum performance on the handball court. And some of this footwear eventually transcended its sporting origins to become certified sneakerhead classics that remain in heavy rotation today. Get ready to slam down a brief history of handball shoes.
Handball actually first started as an outdoor game known as Field Handball. Its first and only appearance on the world stage was all the way back at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Innovation at that time more or less meant hammering studs into leather oxfords. Keep in mind that athletic shoes – i.e. what is considered sneakers today – were rather rudimentary at the turn of the 20th century… largely because no such thing existed. The footwear of handball became much more interesting when the sport spent a few decades transitioning indoors, eventually returning to Munich 1972.
The Three Stripes
Given that the earliest official handball games were played in Germany, it was only a matter of time before adidas got in on the action. They designed a dedicated Handball line in the late 1970s that spawned a whole host of iconic models– including the Handball Spezial, Handball LXS and, as the name suggests, top-of-the-line Handball Top in the decade that followed. Over in the UK, these models and more formed an integral part of the most dedicated trainerspotters within the terrace and casuals crowd at football matches and The Haçienda. It’s unlikely a single handball was ever thrown in Manchester in the 1980s.
The reason most indoor shoes from this era onwards exclusively use gum rubber soles is because they don’t mark up the polished timber floorboards. Running shoes, on the other hand, often have carbon mixed into the outsole rubber to improve their durability and grip. The trade-off is the carbon transfers from sole to ground, leaving a black skid mark.
PUMA were also once heavily invested in handball shoes, having models simply named Handball back in the 1970s to compete with their Three-Striped rivals. As PUMA entered the 90s, their handball range tapered off into more generalised indoor-compatible products. However, the range today now includes some dedicated performance shoes such as the Accelerate Turbo Nitro.
Next door, Danish company hummel – like most European sportswear companies – started off in football, but diversified their range to include handball. The investment was not insignificant: hummel sponsored the Danish national handball team at the LA 1984 Summer Olympics; their bright team kit earned them the moniker ‘The Candy Boys’. It was indeed a sweet pairing, as the team notched up an admirable fourth place in the event.
The Modern Game
With the Tokyo Olympics now in full swing, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the highlight reels to spot what the world’s best players are rocking. Expect to see flagship offerings from local brands ASICS and Mizuno, plus mainstays like adidas, PUMA and hummel.
ASICS have been involved with a handball for a while now, but like many brands it appears some models tend to be multi-use shoes. For example, pro player Ludovic Fabregas wore the Netburner for a few seasons – a well-cushioned and grippy model that also happens to be very popular within the netball scene.
Mizuno was founded in Japan but have a strong foundation in Europe, thanks in part to an extensive handball range that carries over 30 different products. The company’s signature Wave technology has been adapted across a range of specific products like the Wave Stealth Neo, which was developed in conjunction with 2018 World Handball MVP, Mikkel Hansen. And Mizuno recently picked up Ludovic Fabregas after his stint with ASICS.
Meanwhile, star player Alex Dujshebaev helped develop hummel’s ‘most advanced handball shoe in the world’, the Indoor 6000, which was later translated into the street-ready REACH LX 6000. This is just one model from Hummel’s 50-plus handball shoe range.
Similarly, adidas have continued developing their modern handball shoes while retaining a lot of its original DNA. For example, the Handball Spezial Pro features some very clear nods to the original Handball Spezial, but it receives a modern BOOST midsole to meet up-to-date performance demands. However, at least according to online retailer handballshop, some of adidas’ basketball shoes are also suitable for handball use. This seems to be the case with other brands too.
And as specialised handball footwear options have generally homogenised in design, the sheer volume of options in the market is still a reflection of the game’s enduring popularity.