This article titled “Handball starts Olympic march out of the sporting shadows” was written by Andy Bull, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 24th November 2011 22.38 UTC
If you are incapable of planning anything more than a week in advance, the chances are you have no idea what you will be up to in August 2016. “I could be a lawyer with stratagems and ruses / I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises,” as Ian Dury put it. “I could be a writer with a growing reputation / I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station.” Or you could be playing handball for Great Britain at the Rio Olympics. If you have what it takes – and it takes a lot, much more than most people would be willing to give – then fill out the form and go for a trial.
Legacy is already one of the most overused words of the 2012 Olympics, drilled into the minds of the multitude of administrators, managers and politicians who circle around the circus.
Handball is a sport where it actually has a tangible application; it is an expectation as much as it is an aspiration. On Wednesday the Great Britain women’s team played their opening match at the London Handball Cup, which is being held in the arena that will be used next summer.
They beat Angola, the African champions, 22-20; it was, the team reckoned, probably the best result in their history. That says a little about their level – Angola are likely to be at the Olympics but should not come close to troubling the top teams. But they are exactly the kind of side Great Britain will need to get past if they are to meet their target of making the knock-out stages.
More exciting than the match itself was the reaction of the crowd. A thousand or so local schoolchildren had been given free entry and, with the conspicuous exception of the three who were loitering at the back of the venue smoking cigarettes, they were enchanted and excited by what they saw, screaming and roaring and clapping and shouting and singing right through the 60 minutes of the match.
Unless you have been spending too much time on the sofa watching Eurosport in the early hours, the odds are you will be unfamiliar with handball if you are British. It is a compelling game – fast, frenetic and skilful but simple to understand. The rules can be boiled down into 10 bullet points on a sheet of A5 paper. For a newcomer the only difficulty is understanding the fouls, which are an integral part of the play. As the GB men’s player Chris McDermott put it: “When you make contact with someone, generally a foul is given, but fouls are part of the game. Fouling is good defence.” That means it is also a much more physical sport than people may imagine.
“I’ve broken plenty of bones,” says McDermott. “My elbow, both my hands, I’ve dislocated most of my fingers and I’ve just torn the ligaments in my hand by dislocating my thumb.”
It is the speed that is really bewitching, though. Once a team has possession the seven opposition players will retreat to their goal area, and the attacking side then have to pick their way through the defensive line. When this is done well, watching them move the ball around is a little like playing find the lady with a card sharp. The attackers switch it to and fro with an intricate array of passes, turns, sleights and feints, trying to crack open a weak spot so they can surge through and shoot on goal.
After the Sydney Olympics, handball’s popularity surged among the Australian public, who had previously had little exposure to it. “I think that when the British public see it they will 1) love it and 2) wonder why the British aren’t playing this in schools and in clubs,” says GB Handball’s performance director, Lorraine Brown. “We have a challenge because of the Commonwealth sports and cricket, rugby and netball. But we don’t want London to be a flash in the pan. We’re not just doing it for the Olympic Games. I think it could be the No1 legacy sport.”
The English and Scottish Federations have already got the game into 400 schools and Great Britain have run under-21 teams at the last two European age-group championships. As the men’s head coach, Dragan Djukic, points out, “the average age of our senior team is 21.7 years so they will have a future in Rio and even after.”
It may not be quite as easy as they make it sound. Many of the players have been motivated almost entirely by the prospect of playing in 2012, and will return to the careers and countries they moved away from once the Olympics are over. On top of that both men’s and women’s teams will be likely to lose more matches than they win next year, simply because they have so little collective experience in comparison with the major nations. And if they fail to meet their targets, then the already slender funding will be slashed again.
But there is no doubt that handball will never have a better chance to establish itself in this country. And as those 1,000 kids will tell you, it is exciting stuff. Watch it next summer and you may find yourself thinking about filling in that form.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010