Olympic diary: Handball! (But there isn't a footballer in sight)
22:04 GMT, 30 July 2012
It speaks volumes for football’s sporting dominance in this country that when anyone says handball it is mainly regarded as a reason to shout at a referee.
But across mainland Europe and Scandinavia it has nothing to do with Diego Maradona’s outstretched arm, and is instead a sport in its own right.
This came as something of a shock to the organisers of the London Olympics. When the Games bid was successful seven years ago, British coaches looked down the list of events and suddenly realised they had forgotten something. There was no handball team.
Hard luck: The British handball team salute the crowd despite their heavy defeat to Russia
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So they essentially invented one, either by shopping abroad or trawling for recruits on the internet, which is why so many of this Team GB come from anywhere but Britain.
Lyn website that is supposed to list the players’ ‘birth date and place’ significantly doesn’t bother to refer to the place. Possibly because they didn’t have an atlas.
Others have recently taken up the sport, like Kathryn Fudge, whose mother saw an advert for the ‘Sporting Giants’ campaign looking for tall, sporty women and applied on her behalf.
So handball is new to most of us, both on and off the court. But its arrival at the Games has certainly been greeted with enthusiasm. There wasn’t an empty seat in the 7,000-capacity Copper Box arena and people are starting to wonder why they haven’t seen much of the sport before.
It all started in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Having invented alcoholism, depression, pornography and flat-pack furniture, the Scandinavians turned their attention to sport and handball began to flourish in the 19th Century. It spread right across mainland Europe, but — like rabies — stopped at the Channel. The field version of the game was first played at the 1936 Olympics, but the men’s indoor version appeared at the 1972 Munich Games and the women joined four years later in Montreal. Britain didn’t bother until it landed on their doorstep.
As I understand it, the rules are as follows. People run up and down a five-a-side court, throw a medium-sized ball from side to side across the semi-circular penalty area for a while like a hot potato, and then fling it into a small goal with great force.
Spread eagle: Natalia Shipilova scores a goal against Great Britain as Russia ease to victory
Most of the time, you wonder why they don’t just kick the thing, but there is no doubting the contests are surprisingly physical and hectic. Oddly, for a game involving hands, the position of goalkeeper seems to be the most redundant. Their main duties seem to be: 1) Jump like a starfish to try to stop the ball. 2) Retrieve the ball from the back of the net. 3) Repeat every couple of minutes.
If by some miracle an attacker does fail to score by hitting one of the keeper’s four outstretched limbs, the crowd goes wild. And GB’s Sarah Hargreaves did at least have two blocks to celebrate during a back-straining hour in which the Russians scored 37 times.
But despite the gulf in quality, the Copper Box audience was as supportive and partisan as a pantomime crowd and took great delight in simply experiencing the game. Despite its decidedly un-British feel, handball seems to hook in the curious and is showing signs of growing in popularity.
‘I came along because it looks like an enormous amount of fun,’ said BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull sitting next to me in the press box. ‘And it probably is — if you’re not up against a giant Russian.’
Let's get physical: Lynn McCafferty of Great Britain (right) and Natalia Shipilova of Russia
That seemed to be the main problem for Britain. The Russians were enormous. Britain’s girls could not be faulted for effort, but they appeared to be pitted against the seven sisters of Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.
In the circumstances it was a bit much to ask them to do anything other than avoid embarrassment, since they were facing the former world champions and silver medallists from Beijing four years ago.
At the end of a fairly one-sided, but oddly encouraging performance, the British players were cheered as if they had won, lined up to take a collective bow, and left the arena with their heads held high despite a comprehensive 16-37 defeat.
Britain now anchor the foot of Group A and the team’s Danish coach Jesper Holmris admitted: ‘A quarter-final spot is extremely ambitious.’ But he believes their chances will improve against the non-European teams, beginning with Brazil on Wednesday.
New fan: David Cameron (left) watched the handball at the Copper Box on Monday
Six-foot tall Fudge, GB’s only real ‘Sporting Giant’, was watched from the stands by the mother who originally nominated her for the team.
She said afterwards: ‘Who knew that would lead me to here I couldn’t even imagine the Olympics would be like this.
‘Handball really is a minority sport in this country and that’s why we have to look abroad for players. We need to be competitive because performing at a decent level attracts attention and increases participation here. That’s the only way the sport is going to grow. But we’re getting there. In the last few days it seems to have gone crazy.’
The women have fought for recognition for their sport, touring schools and trying to increase the profile of their niche sport. Some have sold their houses to fund their participation in the British team. It would be a shame if the advances they have made were lost after the Games. They deserve a hand.
This souvenir passed through the scanner
The scanners are proving to be easy to negotiate at the moment. A mildly lethal souvenir metal bottle opener and magnetic fridge magnet didn’t so much as raise a beep as I wandered though the machine.
The bright spark at the Olympic Broadcast Service who moaned that the failure of the info graphics during coverage of the cycling road races was down to the public daring to use their mobile phones and interfering with their GPS system.
The IOC is now asking spectators to ‘only send urgent tweets and pictures’ from London 2012. I don’t believe they can have been paying attention.
You’d have to use surgery to get most people to part with their phone — and these days everything is urgent.