Rio 2016 reflection: Denmark’s historic first men’s gold

19 Jun. 2020

Rio 2016 reflection: Denmark’s historic first men’s gold

With Olympic Day approaching on 23 June, looks back at the most recent Olympic Games, in 2016, when two new champions were crowned in the handball competitions.

Prior to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Denmark were not the stand-out favourites to clinch the gold medal in the men’s competition.

The Olympic Games were held in August, and in January that year Denmark had missed out on the medal round at the European championship, losing to France in their last placement match and ultimately ranking sixth. The year before, at the 2015 IHF Men’s World Championship, Denmark finished fifth. 

As France had won the World Championship while Germany had lifted the EHF EURO 2016 trophy, these two nations were perhaps the biggest favourites in the men’s competition. Other countries who had reached the semi-finals at those events, such as Poland, Spain, Qatar and Croatia, also appeared significant threats to the title. 

Denmark are never underdogs, but they still took the Olympic competition by surprise at Rio 2016 – and their success was due to playing the knock-out round just right. 

At the end of the preliminary round, Denmark, at that time coached by Icelander Gudmundur Gudmundsson, had recorded three wins and two losses. They therefore ranked third in Group A behind Croatia and France. Denmark’s victories had come against Argentina, Tunisia and Qatar, while they lost to the two fellow European sides. 

In the quarter-final, Denmark met the second-ranked team from Group B, Slovenia, winning a high-scoring clash 37:30. The semi-final against Poland saw a thrilling extra-time clash, with Denmark edging their rivals 29:28 after 70 minutes of play. 

While Denmark were making their way to the final, their opponents in the trophy match, France, followed a similar path – a clear win in the quarter-final, followed by a far closer victory in the semi-final. At that point still the defending back-to-back Olympic champions, it was of little surprise that France were such a strong force in the knock-out stage. 

France were responsible for ending the dream of Olympic hosts Brazil, with a 34:27 victory in the quarter-final. The much tighter semi-final came down to the last seconds, when Daniel Narcisse scored the match winner for France to defeat Germany 29:28. 

Thus, both semi-finals ended with the score of 29:28 – and, reflecting what was overall an exciting Olympic competition, the women’s tournament also saw semi-final wins of just one goal. 

After Germany won the bronze-medal match against Poland on the very last day of the 2016 Olympic Games, Denmark and France took the court to battle for the title. The men’s handball competition was one of the last gold medals decided at the Games. 

Led by another top-scoring effort from Hansen, Denmark created a two-goal edge over France at half-time, 16:14. They held on to that same difference at the final buzzer, 28:26, and with that, Denmark’s first men’s Olympic handball title was won. 

The Scandinavian nation added that gold medal to three consecutive titles won by the women’s team, at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Denmark’s four gold medals meant they became leaders of the all-time Olympic gold medal standings in handball, alongside Soviet Union. 

Casper Mortensen goes for goal at Rio 2016.

Denmark goalkeeper Jannick Green commented after the Rio 2016 final that it was in 1996 when his Olympic dream began, showing the importance of the women’s earlier success in inspiring the men’s. 

“It was the Olympics in 1996 – that was the first time I realised what the Olympics were and I thought it was amazing and dreamt about one day making this,” said Jannick Green Krejberg. “It’s been a tough competition, so many good teams… We had some luck of course, you need that to win. But we worked really hard and played well.”

Three Danes were named in the Rio 2016 All-star Team: Niklas Landin Jacobsen as goalkeeper, Mikkel Hansen as left back and Lasse Svan as right wing. Hansen also scooped the MVP award. 

All three players and the largely unchanged squad did not have to wait long for their next title, when they celebrated their first World Championship trophy at home in Herning in January 2019. Within three years, Denmark secured two historic firsts, however, there have also been obstacles for the Scandinavian side since their Rio 2016 victory. 

At the 2017 IHF Men’s World Championship, it was a shock when the team that had won the Olympic Games only five months prior were eliminated by Hungary in the eighth-final stage. At the EHF EURO 2018, Denmark reached the medal round and ultimately finished fourth. At the EHF EURO 2020, Denmark had high hopes, but those were crushed as the world and Olympic champions were knocked out in the preliminary round. 

However, their 2019 IHF Men’s World Championship victory was enough to secure Denmark a place at the 2020 Olympic Games, so the chance to defend their title remains very much alive. 

On the all-time list of Olympic medals won by Denmark, handball is the fourth most successful sport thanks to the triumphs of the women’s side and now the men’s. The only sports that eclipse handball on that list are those with more than one gold medal at stake during the Olympic Games, making the handball success even more impressive. 

When the women’s team took their first Olympic gold medal in 1996, it was the start of a dynasty. Could Rio 2016 prove the start of an era of Olympic dominance for the men’s side? Only time will tell.