Handball

This week’s sport has been a long time coming, since that fateful day in November last year when unsuspecting New Favourite Olympian and GB handball player, Sebastian Prieto, retweeted a link to my blog. Bizarrely, he seemed un-phased by months of my relentless Twitter-stalking and offered to help me try handball. Two Olympians in two weeks – like an adolescent boy, I worry that I’ve peaked too soon. The only way this trajectory can continue is if someone can get Beyonce to judge my rhythmic gymnastics competition (can anyone do that?).

So back to this week, and Seb and I are off to train with Ruislip Eagles, coached by Mel Chowns, former GB Women’s Handball coach. Ruislip Eagles’ women’s team is, at the time of writing, contentiously sitting in second place in the league. The team at the top of the league (by the tiniest of margins) is London GD (formerly known as Great Dane), a team with whom there seems to be some pretty intense rivalry. London GD did kindly offer to host me at one of their training sessions, too, but Seb says I have to train with the best and so to Ruislip we must go – look, I’m just following an ACTUAL OLYMPIAN – I don’t make the rules. In all seriousness, thanks for the offer, GD, if I had time to train with multiple teams I would have loved to train with you too.

I was pretty nervous about trying handball, for a few reasons. I didn’t know very much about handball and hadn’t really seen it played. I had heard handball variously described as all kinds of rough, and like a cross between water polo, rugby and basketball, and as previously discussed, I am scared of EVERYTHING. Also, I try to limit the embarrassment caused by my feeble sporting endeavours, by steering clear of people who are good at sport, plus no one likes looking like a sweaty mess around attractive people, and let’s face it ladies, my NFO Seb isn’t exactly what you’d call bad looking.

NFO, Seb: Doesn't wear his tracksuit to the shops

NFO, Seb: Doesn’t wear his tracksuit to the shops

In a bid to know more about handball, I sat down with bezzie, Vera, to watch the final of the World Men’s Handball Championship a couple of weeks ago. “This looks quite aggressive” Vera tells me, “I think you might quite like it”. I don’t know what to do with this commentary. I tell Seb that we’re not finding the rules immediately obvious and he gives me a brief run down. “So the guy that just looked like he was hugging the other guy – was that allowed?” I ask, and I’m told that “hugging” is fine if it’s face to face, but no “hugging” from behind. Reassuring.

I know I’m going to be terrible at this, but important OCJOG lady Ruth tells me: “Jen, everyone loves a trier”, which I really hope is true, or else there might not be all that much love for me, in sporting terms. It’s also quite a relevant assertion in the context of the men’s GB handball team, one that has one of the most interesting stories I’ve come across during this silly project.

Despite being the second biggest team sport in Europe, Handball in the UK hasn’t been a very big deal, historically. So when London was confirmed as the host city for the 2012 Olympics, someone somewhere must have decided it would be a little embarrassing not to take advantage of the host nation’s privilege to bypass qualification stages and field a competitor in each sport. So funding was made available to set up men’s and women’s teams from scratch, via a talent identification programme.

They were going to have their work cut out for them if they wanted to have any kind of prospects at the 2012 Olympics, and the teams relocated to an academy in Denmark. Disaster struck, by way of financial implosion of the entire world in 2008, and in 2009, a year into the programme, the teams were told there would be no more funding – an odd decision given that they’d come this far and the Olympics were looming ever closer. It was apparently expected that after a year of playing the sport, they should have professional contracts with European teams, and whilst some of the team had managed to get contracts by this point, it would be up to those remaining to fund themselves if they wanted to stay.

The men’s coach quit so that the salary for the remaining three months of his contract could be used to keep the team in the academy until the end of that season. Those without contracts were given a break by the head of the academy, Henrik Lovschall, who arranged a deal with the team whereby they could stay on at the academy in return for their services rendered as, essentially, handymen, affectionately known as the “Renovation Squad”. Fortunately, some members of the Renovation Squad managed to secure contracts the following season, though there were casualties and some members had to give up on the team and return to the UK

The team made it to the Olympics despite this pretty devastating setback, and as expected, didn’t do so well in the overall competition. However, it probably isn’t a coincidence that participation in handball in the UK has seen a massive increase since the 2012 Olympics. Yet the team find themselves without any further funding to continue because they aren’t “viable medal prospects”. Handball isn’t the only team sport to have suffered this fate – GB Basketball came very close to receiving nothing and GB Volleyball is also left without funding.

The problem with team sports is that they’re expensive – you have more bodies to support. But here is my economic case for team sports (admittedly not based on the most robust evidence): even relatively unsuccessful teams tend to attract more supporters than individual athletes (just look at the English national football team), which means more people buy associated gubbins which is good for the economy. Also, whilst there might be more bodies to support, you get an economy of scale with a team, i.e. the cost per person is, in fact, cheaper. A leading economist (my mate Jamie) agreed that these were fair (but not empirically tested) assumptions.

GB Men's Handball: Winners

GB Men’s Handball: Winners

Here’s my non-economic case: we want people to be inspired by the Olympics, and they were in the case of handball. This has been reflected by the post-Olympic funding increase in handball at grassroots level. However, it’s hard to see how that initial boom can be capitalised on if there are no elite athletes to aspire to. Further to this, I know the point of elite sport is that you’re striving to win, but firstly, you’re definitely not going to win if you can’t afford to travel to a match. Secondly, personally, I see absolutely nothing inspirational about telling the next generation that we’re only interested in people who win rather than people who try. This is literally the opposite of what you’re supposed to teach children, isn’t it? And this kind of mentality is exactly what puts so many children off playing sport in the first place. To me this is indicative of almost the worst characteristic of our society – we only want to invest in sure things and we don’t want to give a break to someone who actually needs it. You see it everywhere – in sport, in education, in the workplace.

This position can, apparently, be justified by the fact that we probably wouldn’t have bothered putting a team together in the first place had we not had the host nation’s privilege. This sits a bit uncomfortably with me, though. For a start, any funding that went in has now been wasted. Doesn’t it also mean that these teams, consisting of people who’ve potentially made quite huge personal sacrifices for the sake of representing Team GB, have kind of been used to save sporting face? For me, that particular legacy leaves a bit of a nasty taste, if I’m honest.

But when I’m not standing on a soapbox screaming about the unfairness of it all, I’m still inspired. Actually, I’m probably most inspired by what these guys have done, enough at least to make the journey across London to make an arse of myself, which is, FYI, what happened.

On the way to Ruislip, after he’s finished trying to explain the finer points of this particular beautiful game, Seb hands me a GB training shirt, which prompts some slightly embarrassing squealing from me. “I don’t have a medal”, he shrugs in reference to my meeting with Chloe Rogers last week, “you do get to keep this, though”. Which means I get to wear it about the house, whilst pretending to be an Olympian. “Do you wear your Team GB tracksuit to the shops?” I ask, “I would”. I really would, too.

Neither of us seem to have come out of this one particularly well, if I'm honest

No one seems to have come out of this photo particularly well, least of all my weird arm.

We start off with some throws and catches, which I don’t do too well. I’m never going to use the expression “throws like a girl” ever again, because if this lot are anything to go by,  I throw like some kind of river dwelling mammal that doesn’t actually have real hands. I imagine being struck by one of these balls, and it’s a pretty unpleasant prospect – catching (or at least trying to catch) the easy balls that they throw for me is pretty painful.

I’m throwing from my elbow, rather than my shoulder which is a problem. When this is pointed out to me and I correct it, Seb reckons I can actually throw a bit better, but I keep reverting to my shockingly bad form. Not only this, but I catch like a seal, if you want the specific name for the mammal I’m thinking of. I should be making some kind basket with my hands, which a leading economist (my mate Jamie) has often told me when throwing me sweets in the office (because I like to avoid standing, wherever possible). Mel has to remind the girls to throw “nice” balls for me, which I still can’t catch and one girl actually asks me “do you play any sport?”. Oh, the irony. I’m so bad, I feel guilty that I’m interrupting their training session.

When we get on to the drills that involve running around while also passing the ball, all hell breaks loose. Apparently, when I’m passing the ball, I look like I’m “just trying to get rid of it”, which isn’t that far off the mark. The other problem here is that no matter how many times I watch others doing the same drill, I don’t understand what I’m trying to achieve, it’s the same kind of mental block that I experience when someone tries to give me directions to a location. It feels like quite a complicated sport – you can take three steps with the ball, after that you have to dribble and you can’t shoot in the area around the goal (so you have to throw yourself in the air and shoot, which looks both impressive and quite painful).

Coach Mel: She didn't let me die, that day

Coach Mel: She didn’t let me die, that day

I’m not really sure what I was expecting of Ruislip Eagles’ first team, but these girls are good and, ultimately, Mel takes the sensible decision that there’s no way I can safely play a game with them. So I watch, instead. I’m not surprised that everyone I know who watched handball for the first time at the Olympics fell in love with it – it’s such an exciting spectator sport. I imagine, if you’re any good at it, it’s a very exciting competitor’s sport, too.

I really want handball to be my Olympic sport, because of NFO, Seb, and his team, but I think I’m going to have to work on some of my skills (or lack thereof) first and probably next time practice with some slightly worse players. Massive thanks to the very lovely Seb for introducing me to handball and to Ruislip Eagles, who genuinely deserve a gold medal for putting up with me, but they’re going to have to share it with GB Handball, because (*wipes away solitary tear*) they’ll always be medalists in my eyes.

Gold

Silver

Bronze

Total

Jen

6

8

1

15

Jade

2

1

3

Gemma

2

2

Nick

2

2

Chloe Rogers

1

1

GB Handball

1

1

John

1

1

Naomi

1

1

Otter Water Polo

1

1

Romford HC

1

1

Ruislip Eagles

1

1

Steve

1

1

Simon

2

2

Uncle Becky

2

2

Ali

1

1

James

1

1

My Mum

1

1

Nic

1

1

Pete

1

1

Harriet

1

1

 

© Inspire a Jen, 2013.

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