PREVIEW-Olympics-Handball-European heavyweights expected to dominate Tokyo Games

TOKYO, June 30 (Reuters) - Handball heavyweights France, Denmark and Norway are among the top medal contenders at Tokyo 2020, but emerging rivals from elsewhere will seek to dent Europe’s dominance.

European countries will make up 11 of the 18 nations represented in the men’s and women’s competitions at the Tokyo Games.

There will be 12 teams in both the men’s and women’s events who will do battle in the group stages, before the quarter-finals, semi-finals and medal matches.

Since handball joined the Olympic programme in its modern indoor version at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the only non-European team to win a medal in the men’s competition were South Korea, who won silver at the 1988 Seoul Games.

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, the semi-finals of both competitions were all-European affairs.

Denmark were victorious in the men’s competition with France winning silver and Germany bronze, while Russia took home gold in the women’s tournament, ahead of France and Norway.

In Tokyo, France will be chasing gold after failing to extend their reign as the dominant force in men’s handball at Rio 2016 having been crowned Olympic champions at both London 2012 and Beijing 2008.

France will look to versatile playmaker Nikola Karabatic, 37, who recently made his return following an injury.

Denmark, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden are among the other European contenders.

African champions Egypt will target a place in the knockouts, for which they will need to finish among the four best teams of their group. That would put them on course for a surprise medal.

Men’s teams from Argentina, Bahrain and Brazil have also qualified.

The women’s tournament is also expected to be dominated by European nations, such as Norway, France and reigning champions Russia, who will play under a neutral banner as the Russian Olympic Committee due to doping restrictions.

The Netherlands, Hungary, Montenegro, Spain and Sweden will make up the other European participants, while South Korea, Angola and Brazil are among the non-European teams.

Hosts Japan will play in both competitions.

The men’s handball tournament will run from July 24 to Aug. 7, while the women’s competition will start a day later, on July 25, and run through Aug. 8.

Reporting by Daniel Leussink Editing by Toby Davis