By Liesl Ulrich-Verderber
In the midst of poverty and with the odds stacked against them, an Olympic dream has been ignited in Zambia. One handball team is working tirelessly to hone their skills and make it into the 2020 Olympics. Can they do it? And why is it so important that they do? Take a look at their story and you’ll see, sometimes the underdogs can surprise you.
Why do we love the story of the underdog so much? Perhaps we recognize the grit, the determination, and the struggle of those with the odds stacked against them. Maybe we root for them because their story resonates with our own. Whatever the reason, we have a truly inspiring new underdog for you to root for; the Zambian National Handball team.
On this edition of Saturday’s Around the World, we’re heading to Zambia to meet them. The tale of this team is the stuff great stories are made of. It’s the kind of story that leaves you with a new appreciation for passion, and the doors that open up when you work relentlessly towards a goal.
Let’s start with the basics, where is Zambia?
Zambia a landlocked country located in South Central Africa. It neighbors the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Zimbabwe to the south, Angola to the west, and Tanzania and Malawi to the east.
The country’s population is remarkably young and growing. With the UN projecting that the population will triple by 2050. 1As many countries have seen a steady decline in family size, women in Zambia still average six children over the course of their lifetime. Given the many factors that contribute to rapid population growth, it’s now estimated that two-thirds of Zambians live in poverty. 2
Given these statistics, Zambia seems an odd place for an emerging sports story. And yet, starting from almost nothing in 2012 the team, comprised mostly of men from the slums of Lusaka, is now looking towards making it to the 2020 Olympics.
So, what is handball?
Handball, to any new onlooker, looks like it sits at the intersection of soccer, basketball, and water polo. And like soccer and water polo, teams score points by scoring on the opponent’s net. In order to do this, six on-court players pass the ball using their hands with a goalie tending the goal. A fast-paced game has dribbling, fouls, and rocketing shots on goal. Take a second to search Olympic handball on YouTube, and you’ll get an idea of what the sport looks like.
In 2012, there was only one handball field in Zambia. And when Seiji Tashiro, a visiting official to the Japanese embassy, saw the potential of the boys playing there, he decided to invest in becoming a coach and mentor to the team. 3 Since that fortunate series of events, the team has been coming together to make it to the ultimate stage, the Olympics.
For the players, playing handball is how they see their way out of poverty. They aren’t just playing for sport, they are playing for their futures.
One of our favorite filmmakers, Austin Meyer, filmed a beautiful short documentary highlighting the journey of this remarkable team and its players. This was the first film of his I had the pleasure of watching, and you’ll see why it so deeply inspired me.
Perhaps this story resonates with so many of us because we have all been the underdog in our own way before. Maybe we know what it takes to have the courage to devote ourselves to our life’s work. We even know what it’s like to devote ourselves to something we love and taste some failure. Perhaps we’ve experienced being knocked down, and getting back up to try and win.
The feeling of rooting for the underdog is the feeling of rooting for the part of ourselves that has had to work enormously hard for what we love. If the underdog wins sometimes, then why can’t we?
There’s no greater proof that it’s still an amazing word than when the underdogs win. Their success is a reminder that we are capable of winning against the odds. Their hard work lets us know that our own work won’t be in vain. Underdogs represent where we’ve all been, and now, where we want to see ourselves!
s of the writing of this article, Zambia’s dreams of making it to the 2020 Olympics are still alive. If they continue to have success and we do see them on the Olympic stage, we will have all had the honor or celebrating them first. And, of course, have a new country to root for!
If you’d like to keep tabs on the team, check out their page on the International Handball Federation site.
What underdogs do you love to support? Why does their story lift you up? Perhaps you could cheer on the next underdog that inspires us all!
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
COO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed
Liesl is a camera-toting traveller, a global storey seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV
- BBC Monitoring. “Zambia Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Jan. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14112449. Accessed 25 June 2019.
- Central Intelligence Agency. “The World Factbook: Zambia.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/za.html. Accessed 25 June 2019.
- Jones, Rachel, and Austin Meyer. “Zambia’s National Handball Team Dreams of Olympic Gold in 2020.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 10 Jan. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/01/zambia-handball-team-dreams-olympic-gold/. Accessed 25 June 2019.
- Meyer, Austin. “Zambia’s National Handball Team Dreams of Olympic Gold in 2020 | Short Film Showcase.” YouTube, National Geographic, 20 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5Nsp6TxAYg. Accessed 25 June 2019.