Talk of the ‘Olympic legacy’ becomes tedious after a while, but for one sport not well known in Britain before August the Olympics might have proved the important stimulus to kick-start its growth in Britain.
Handball is played by nearly everyone across continental Europe from an early age, much like football is in this country. In Germany, 15,000 capacity arenas are regularly filled for Handball-Bundesliga games between professional teams, with the sport being second in popularity only to football.
It seems that every other European country has taken to handball, with 500 capacity sports halls in every town, semi-professional and professional leagues, successful national teams and the recognition of handball stars being common from Spain to Scandinavia to Siberia – while in Britain 30 or 40 amateur teams have struggled to find sports halls big enough to play their games in (handball requires a 40x20m court, but most sports halls are in the region of 35×15).
The fact that Warwick’s handball team plays in the English second division says it all. When the Olympics were given to London in 2005, there was no Great Britain handball team – a league barely existed.
Then the Olympics began, and the 7000-capacity Copper Box arena was filled to capacity with British ticket-holders who were interested to see what this sport was all about. And they loved it. The very first match of the Games, a women’s showdown between Angola and Russia, was a close encounter. Many British spectators put their voices behind the Angolan team – sorry Russia, they needed something to counteract the deafening voice of your coach. Later that day, 1.3 million people tuned in to watch the first GB women’s game on BBC 3, while the following day 1.5 million people watched the first GB men’s.
It wasn’t just the self-confessed handball geeks like me watching handball on BBC Olympics 19 (or whatever back-end channel it was that day) – 200,000 people watched on the red button or online. Even though both British teams lost all their games (although the women came close against Angola, and the men kept the first-half deficit against Iceland to 3 goals) handball was now in the public mind – and everyone wanted to play it. A Daily Telegraph commentator even called for it to become Britain’s national sport. Most importantly, I could wear my Warwick Handball hoody around Tesco without getting funny looks.
Why did handball become so popular? Probably because it is so quick and skillful, and tactical wizardry leads to great goals – 60 in a game is not uncommon. Fouls are seen as a good thing, because you’ve disrupted the other team’s attack. Even leaving the room for two minutes would almost guarantee that you had missed something. Every team knows that they must stay focused for all 60 minutes, and this has created an exciting sport from start to finish.
Will the increased exposure of and interest in the sport translate into greater participation in the future? There aren’t a lot of clubs in Britain; though London and Manchester have a number of highly successful teams, the club at Warwick was until recently the only club in the West Midlands; Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city by population, still has no handball clubs. The clubs that do exist have regularly seen between 40 and 80 people turn up for beginners’ taster sessions, and have retained a large percentage of these newcomers. Maybe this is because the sport is so easy to pick up, or perhaps because of the promise of regular beginners’ competitions organised by the national associations.
In Britain, universities have made up the bulk of the teams, since that’s where handball-playing Europeans tend to be concentrated. It is likely that university clubs, including the one at Warwick, will continue to be hubs of handball in Britain. It remains to be seen if the sport is taken up by young children. Though junior clubs have yet to spring up across the country, getting handball into schools is an idea that the chairman of the British Olympic Association backs – and is probably our best hope for the future. As long as this continues, it could be the start of something.