Published on February 11, 2013 | by Joshua Drake

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Handball attempting to cash-in on Olympic exposure

Olympia HC player shooting at goal during his side’s game against London GD [Paul Fenech]

The word ‘legacy’ has been banded around a great deal post-2012 and there is one sport in particular hoping to build upon its Olympic success: Handball.

Handball is the second largest sport in Europe in terms of participation, which will come as a surprise to most Brits, who will probably claim to have never heard or even seen the sport.

The London Olympics, however, gave us a glimpse at what handball is all about.

The nation was mesmerised by the fast-paced back and forth counter-attacks, the measured and incredibly intricate build-up play and sheer brute strength and athleticism.

In what has been touted as one of the greatest handball tournaments in living memory, France and Norway came away from the London Games with gold medals, in the men’s and women’s divisions.

Equally inspiring were the performances put in by Great Britain, especially given that the vast majority of the players had been playing the sport for five years before the London Olympics.

Paul Fenech, the treasurer for the Olympia Handball Club said: “Great Britain did very well, the women especially.”

“They all did brilliantly, considering they had picked handball up a few years before. They were then going up against individuals who had been playing the sport for most of their lives.”

“The best players in the world were there and Great Britain showed heart; they weren’t walked over,” Fenech added.

Rising Popularity

One-and-a-half million people tuned in for the men’s opening game against the reigning European and world champions France live on BBC3. The interest was there from the start, and grew as the tournament unfolded.

During the Games, Richmond-based Thames Handball Club received 475 emails inquiring about the game and 65 on the first day Team GB’s Men’s team played.

Both Thames and Olympia play in the London SportHouse League, which is run by the London Handball Association (LHA).

Frank Wuggenig, the Thames chairman said: “The club has grown from an initial two teams mostly comprised of foreign players, to six teams: two men, two female and two junior.

“Handball encompasses all the qualities of a team sport. You can’t get away with sitting back on a one-goal lead like football, you have to attack or otherwise you will be penalised for slowing the game down. It’s very attractive watching the athletic shots and leaps.”

The game is played at a ferocious speed for the most part, but when the play does eventually slow you see another side to handball. If the attacking team is unable to score on the counter-attack, they will assemble into formation encircling the opposition’s box.

The ball is switched this way and that in a beautiful blur of speed and movement in search of a gap in the defence. The playmaker is the key to orchestrating the attack, and is usually in the centre of the formation.

“Handball is just as fast as basketball, but far more physical, which requires more athleticism than anything else. I think it is probably the second most physical team sport after rugby,” says Fenech.

Olympia HC also profited from the new-found interest in the game and opened two new “B” teams for both sexes and added a junior team.

“There was much more interest than we expected. One of the things I noticed in particular is that during the Olympics, much of the interest was from foreign players, but now we have more and more British players joining up.”

Progression

Over the course of the next year, Olympia hopes to open another team for beginners, as the number of new participants looking to enter the sport has increased to an all-time high.

Records of handball being played go as far back as the Middle Ages. It is thought to have first been played in medieval France and among the Inuit of Greenland.

Today, its popularity is widespread across Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. France, however, has won the last two summer Olympic tournaments in the men’s category.

This poses the question as to why handball isn’t as popular in Britain, given that we share similar sporting interests to the French.

“It is basically the lack of media interest. A few articles with regular reports on the leagues would help, as well as showing the games on mainstream television, and then the rest would take care of itself,” says Wuggenig.

Fenech cites the absence of handball in school curriculums as a reason: “In Britain, the take-up is quite slow. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of youth systems in place. Abroad, you have so many youth systems implemented to ensure involvement and participation.”

“We are struggling with our own youth club at Olympia. We are trying to get help from Westminster to have it incorporated into their school curriculum but they refuse to recognise it. I even asked one of the schools if they would be interested in free taster classes and they refused!”

This isn’t the case everywhere, though. The LHA is now supporting the establishment of handball competitions within schools and universities, and also backing teachers and students to develop it in what is an integral process if the sport is to rise popularity.

Funding

Unfortunately, in December it was announced that the £2.92 million of Olympic funding dedicated to handball would be cut completely in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeriro, Brazil.

However, the government subsequently announced record levels of investment for handball at grassroots level by doubling the previous figures from £600,000 to £1.2 million.

Handball far exceeded the agreed participation level with Sport England, who awarded the funds raised by the National Lottery, as participation was increased by 200 per cent, a year ahead of schedule.

Wuggenig explains how sponsorship is also present among some of the clubs, but is sparse in terms of substantial financial assistance: “It mainly comes down to if a player has the right connections. Sponsorship will most likely come in the form of a team kit or just a small contribution.”

“Trade-offs are also common. For example, some restaurants offer to sponsor you by paying for hall hire, in return for the players going to the restaurant a guaranteed set of times a month on a fixed £25 per head meal.”

In Britain, it is even more striking when you look at the individual budgeting for big teams in France such as Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain, who have allocated themselves a collective £14.1 million for the current season.

Of course, PSG is different given the club’s new Qatari owners, but it does show that the money is worth investing due to the popularity of the French league.

“It’s not just about the money, though; it’s also about people helping us improve the numbers in participation through awareness,” says Fenech.

Home support

The outstanding reception handball received at the London Games proves this. It wasn’t a case of people getting behind Team GB for the sake of them being British; they got behind the sport as a collective entity.

A brilliant spectator sport, the future of Handball is looking secure as more people want to take it up.

Chris Smith of the LHA sums it up brilliantly: “The London 2012 Olympic Games presented handball to the British public in a remarkable way and captured the imagination of the British public. I think there is a love for handball in our country, we just have to grow it.”

And so we come back to that word: ‘legacy.’ It’s a widely held view that handball is, and will remain as, the legacy sport of London 2012. But is that as far as the bandwagon goes?

Before the hugely successful London Olympics, handball was called a ‘sleeper sport,’ but that’s an insult to handball. It’s more like a sleeping giant. The big question is: When will Britain wake it up?

 

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