Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Can Rio Give Handball Another Boost?

The Rio Olympics are almost upon us and with it the four yearly chance for handball to grab the public’s attention and showcase what it has to offer. This opportunity was never greater than in 2012 when, as hosts, Team GB was permitted to field teams across the entire range of sports. Handball was one of the major beneficiaries of this when, for the first time, the men and women’s British teams were able to take part in a top level international competition. Handball made the most of this opportunity by gaining unprecedented publicity for the sport. Millions watched on the television, new clubs, such as Coventry, immediately sprang up around the country, the governing body had more hits on Wikipedia than any other except for cycling and even Sir Clive Woodward caught the bug, tweeting about the virtues of handball on more than one occasion, labelling handball as “a proven start in creating co-ordination” and expressing the view that handball should be adopted as a second sport by all of those playing team sports.

In the intervening years, between the 2012 and 2016 games, handball has had an uneven rise. Immediately after the London Olympics the governing body for handball in England, the EHA, reported a near quadrupling of participation over the period 2010-2012. However, this coincided with UK Sport withdrawing all funding for elite British handball leading to the closing of the senior international programme. At grassroots level the growth of the sport has been phenomenal with the EHA reporting school participation in England rising from 25 teams in 2010 to 285 in 2014 and over 900 in 2015. This was helped by £1.2 million funding received from Sport England for the period 2013-17.

The rapid expansion in the number of schools in England adopting handball has been aided by the sport’s recognition in GCSE PE. However, the attraction of handball to physical educators is not only for its novelty value and place in the curriculum; the sport is being adopted because of a variety of benefits that it brings. In an article published last month, ‘Spicing up your curriculum’ by Adolfo Ramos and Keri Esslinger, the writers describe handball as feeling fresh but that it integrates many principles of more traditional sports. In it they summarise some of these benefits, noting that handball develops basic skills and provides participants with a workout in which they may run up to three miles in a series of short bursts of energy over the period of an hour. In addition, they point out that the sport helps youngsters develop decision-making and problem solving and can even contribute to their appreciation of diversity since handball is popular across the globe and particularly in continental Europe. Add to these benefits the fact that handball is usually played indoors and so is rarely a victim of the weather and the relative ease and frequency with which scoring takes place compared with other popular team ball games and the attraction of introducing handball becomes apparent.

So, four years on from London, what position is handball in to exploit the potential boost of the Rio Olympics? There will be no British teams to follow this time around but even if funding had been available for full Team GB squads, they would not have made the progress required to qualify in such a short time frame. On the other hand, since handball is not starting from the relatively low awareness based of four years ago, more people may be encouraged to watch, having been introduced to it since 2012. A major drawback for handball has often been the size of court required; only a small proportion of sports halls in the UK are built to the dimensions required (40 by 20 metres). However, this year the EHA has introduced the ‘Try Handball’ initiative which has been designed to introduce more flexibility to the way that handball is played and importantly encourages play in more limited spaces. Importantly, the coaching base has also expanded so that when the Olympics have finished there will be more available to take advantage of any interest generated as well as many more teachers aware of what the sport has to offer. Handball will also benefit from being one of the few sports that takes place across the whole of the games and across the whole of the sporting day. Until the advent of the red button and the Internet we were lucky if we had more than the final 30 seconds of the final broadcast on TV. Also, it will be featured in the major holiday event I am Team GB on Saturday 27 August.

So, 6 to 21 August, the duration of the handball tournament in Rio, may well be the most important 16 days that British handball has had since London 2012 despite there being no British teams in the tournament. It remains to be seen if these Games will give the sport the boost it needs to grow even faster but given the wider participation, and the advances outlined, even a small proportion of the publicity handball attracted in 2012 should enable it to take advantage.

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