UK Sport had no choice but to cut handball’s funding and that’s the problem.

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Was your favourite Olympic moment when you dialled up one of the extra BBC channels and looked at the medals table?  If it was, then I pity you.  You’re either the kind of person who sits at the end of the golf club bar talking about how we can still sock it to the foreigners – or you work for UK Sport.

UK Sport has one remit and it is a bizarre one.  Its funding support is in the direction of winning medals of Olympics.  Not world, European or commonwealth titles, not qualification for global events, not any other marker of sporting excellence or popularity.  No, the only measure is Olympic success.  So no funding for non-Olympic sports and no funding for sports that can’t guarantee medals.

That is why the Modern Pentathlon gets £7m because no other country seriously invests in it so setting up an ‘elite’ pathway pretty much guarantees a return when the world (i.e. Sue Barker on BBC1) is watching.  That is why rowing is now the most significantly funded sport in their portfolio.  Rowing.  Now, I love watching the Coxless Fours gunning for glory.  But I also know that the only kids – with only occasional significant Redgrave variation – who can access it belong to the fee-paying schoolchildren class.  There’s also not such a huge number of countries that row seriously so – heh, presto! – medals.

But when you look at handball, basketball, water polo, volleyball and the like (even crowded athletics events like the 100m) then you realise these are globally popular sports will never come with that required guarantee.  There’s only one gold available per gender after all.  And whilst the British like to think they invented all the world’s sports (and now lose at them) that’s nowhere near being true.  I don’t much care for basketball but it takes a special kind of insular Brit to believe it is only popular in the States despite that country’s lock on the gold medal.  These sports are mostly straightforward to access and require very little in complicated equipment – they are open to all provided you can get a booking at the leisure centre.

Now, we turn to handball.  I strongly believe that most people in this country still don’t get quite how popular handball actually is outside the English speaking world (I’m also coming to the opinion that a lot of international handball organisations themselves also don’t quite get it either but that’s by the by).  So whilst we enjoyed the ride in the Copper Box at London 2012 and got to see the handball final live on terrestial TV I suspect some people (and all of UK Sport’s tedious bean counters) were wondering quite why Great Britain didn’t win a match.  Just one measly match.

Handball has been here before, of course.  Long before this jonny-come-lately started watching.  There was no money for anything in 2005 and now we have significant investment from Sport England that will sustain the participation increase noted since before the Olympics which has accelerated since then.  We’re not ever going to be as big as the game is across swathes of Europe but without support for internationals it’s difficult to see how we’re going to be able to properly test ourselves against them either.

And that’s where the UK Sport approach fails.  It works rather brilliantly when you identify either a sport without mass global appeal (which applies to none of the Olympic team sports) or where investment in a handful of athletes can be all-but guaranteed to put you ahead of Australia in the medals table.  But it can never work when its turning mass participation sports which are easy for kids to access into competitive and respected international opponents.

The downside to this year’s Olympics was the snide undertow of the otherwise wonderful patriotism that accompanied Team GB.  Unfortunately it is that snide undertow that UK Sport are told to encourage and for which they must direct funding.  By every measure they use their decision to withdraw all funding from handball was entirely correct; by everything that is magnificent about sport it was, to use Danny Baker’s phrase, the decision of soul-less pinheaded weasels.

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7 comments

  1. Luca

    I believe that IHF and EHF should look at intervening in promoting handball in big markets like UK and Italy, where potentially you could grow the sport greatly.The same it happens in America.Still handball is a niche sport in many countries but International bodies show little interest in supporting handball in such big countries.

  2. Brian Salmon

    It is disingenious of UK Sport to claim that the disenfranchised sports can follow the example of hockey, which at one point had to deal with a similar funding cut. Hockey’s rules were codified in London and there is a long established tradition of being competitive in international competition, most people in middle age will remember the names Jane Sixsmith and Sean Kerly, who both were part of Olympic medal winning teams. The sports that have lost their funding need help to even get onto the first step of international competition, the hardest part is getting enough experience to build a foundation of competitiveness.

    Using the example of the ladies GB team, one could see that though competent in defense they struggled to inject pace into their game going forward and lacked the tactical nous to break down the better teams, this is not a criticism as they did the best they could from a standing start. It is only by getting the opportunity to play against the more skilled sides that they will get the chance to work on their weaknesses. However this is not going to happen if they do not have a coach nor even an available team to select!!

    • handballviews

      I don’t know enough about field hockey to be able to talk about how easy or otherwise it is for England/GB to qualify for the Olympics except that they always seem to be there even when the sport is apparently not doing very well.

      Plus there are *loads* of hockey clubs across the country and for a sport that has no TV coverage they do a very, very good job of retaining and developing players.

      I don’t want to turn sport against sport though but I simply don’t see how any of the team sports that have now been denied international level funding can be expected to come back within a generation to a level that would satisfy UK Sport’s narrow focus.

  3. Brian Salmon

    Fully agree with the comments above, my point was not directed at Team GB’s hockey team, in fact I am delighted with how well Britain’s hockey players have done in the past year. It was aimed at UK Sport’s totally unrealistic view of sports such as volleyball and handball. Hockey already had a good foundation in place, that with a few tweaks was sufficient to restore funding; the challenge facing handball is of a whole different magnitude, and no matter how hard British Handball works is unlikely to be overcome. For hockey to have got its funding back is akin to extending a runway, something that is eminently achievable with the right allocation of resources. For handball to do the same, the equivalent would be to launch a manned mission to the moon in a rocket made up of parts found in a scrapyard.

  4. GB Skipper

    some interesting numbers re. funding. 2009 – 2013 Hockey got over £15m, Handball got sub £3m. An extra £12m pounds and maybe one of the Handball teams might have won one bronze medal. What is clear is that Handball need to develop the Grass Roots but with no investment in the ‘Elite’ Squads, why would talented children want to play this sport when they can choose something else that will fulfill their aspirations.

  5. Brian Salmon

    This is taken from UK Sport’s Investment Principles and why (until there is a change of thinking) handball is unlikely to ever receive any more investment

    4. We strive to make four year investments to cover the complete Olympic/Paralympic
    cycle, but base these on an eight year high performance development model
    The high performance pathways in most sports can take as long as eight years for talented
    athletes to complete and finally reach the podium. Such pathways can only be developed
    systematically with longterm sustained investment.
    Implications
    . Podium level investment is awarded for athletes and teams judged capable of winning
    medals at the Olympics, and gold medals in the Paralympics, within four years
    . Olympic Podium Potential level investment is awarded for athletes and teams deemed
    capable of reaching at least the standard needed to qualify for the next Olympics
    . Paralympic Podium Potential level investment is awarded for athletes and teams deemed
    capable of competing for a medal at the next Paralympics
    . To make a viable case for investment, sports must identify the athletes they expect to
    nominate for all the athletes places they request, at both Podium and Podium Potential level,
    and provide evidence to show they meet the above criteria.

    Strangely enough UK seems happy to ignore Principle No.3
    3. We will only invest in sports bodies which demonstrate the required standards of
    leadership, governance, financial management and administration
    We will scrutinise the governance and leadership of all sports in which we invest to ensure that
    organisations are run professionally and efficiently, with a commitment to achieving the highest
    standards of corporate governance and financial management with systemic excellence at all
    levels. Sports must be able to evidence that equality, safeguarding and ethical standards are
    visibly integrated into their structures and operations.
    Implications
    . We will not invest in an organisation where there is evidence that the governance of that
    sport puts at risk the delivery of its longterm
    performance objectives
    . We will seek evidence that the senior leadership has the appropriate skills to develop and
    guide the organisation’s strategic direction, with a commitment to drive continuous
    improvement by leading and managing change
    . We will embed the required standards in our overall funding agreements, holding sports to
    account for their delivery
    . Performance reviews will focus on excellence in system development and management as
    well as results
    . Consistent failure to meet the required standards will result in the withholding or withdrawal
    of funding

    I can think of at least one sport which does not appear to an outsider to be meeting those criteria….too many Cooks anyone

  6. Fanchick

    ‘Allo ‘Allo!… it’s 5:00 am across the Channel… “Goooooood Moaning” to you!…
    Yes French and I wanted to make a joke here…. Hmmm …
    I realize I am not totally wrong in believing we all should be “moaning” because of the news for the British Handball after the UK Sport decision the other day. This is a feeling that I think we here in Brittany could possibly understand not just because of cultural and historical reasons (can’t say more…) but also as French handball lovers being still frustrated (yes can you believe it?!) for the place granted to their sport in the medias in their own country: certainly bigger and bigger now to be honest, but surprisingly low compared to the list of successes and the top quality of our national team and the level of the clubs in France. I am writing from the region of Quimper, department of the Finistere in Brittany. For Christmas I was looking in a few shops for a book about Handball, or History or about the last Olympics, or technique or any other thing dealing with handball for my boy (> 22,000 handball licence holders in june 2011 in Brittany, > 9,000 for the Finistere alone): I found nothing, zero, nada, niente! Oh no I am wrong: except one book about Karabatic and the “Montpellier affair”… What a shame.
    Before I continue, I must precise I am not a specialist at all and sure don’t know that sport as much as you do, but I like both Handball and UK and to be honest after those great Olympics I am here because I was looking for news and information about that great sport in Great Britain. Plenty “greats” I know and take one more please before I forget as I found your blog great too and must say thanks a lot: super hyper! Thank you very much to you really!
    Just I wanted to send those thanks but I can’t stop here. So May be sharing my little short “froggy experience” could be interesting for someone or encourage anybody mastering or managing the subject here as we are taking the UK Sport decision hard? But first … “Excuse my English”:
    A friend of mine is from Wales and he said that during the Olympics the people discovered a great game and were looking forward now for practicing it, even sometimes driving miles away from home in the evening after their day of work because of a lack of clubs around… I must say it is funny that my friend says so about the handball, coming from where I believe rugby is more than just a game? Note that I personally always loved rugby more than other sports, even handball, as I knew the name of Phil Bennett a long time before Kempa’s! But growing up in Brittany was not the same as a childhood around Toulouse or Cardiff in my time. And there is still a difference actually I must say. Why?!… Culture, education, organization, money, and also one thing that could be shocking here (even me for writing it) but might be true (see below our short experience at home), something to do with the physical shape and ability of the (shouldn’t say “livestock” here it is too much) population (better!) available for developing such a sport at a top level… I insist on that last remark which is shocking or may be rude but at the end I must say we are talking about the cruelty of the hard selection for high performances opening access to the top level of the competition and get….. Success!….
    In order to avoid dealing with the “population” thing and its physical “abilities” again, mentioning rugby at the beginning seems good enough to me for showing the potential of Great Britain! That’s it done. And talking about that, here is an interesting web site where you can read a few documents handball related:
    http://sjss-sportsacademy.edu.rs/home
    and
    http://sjss-sportsacademy.edu.rs/archive/details/full/sport-management-in-countries-in-transition-current-state-and-development-perspectivies-195.html
    Interesting thoughts/studies/statistics (that need interpretation of course!) about the place of sport and organization in what they call the “transition reforms” of countries such as Serbia, Romania, Slovenia…. But… “how surprising!” No mention is made I think about Croatia by the scientists in those articles! Eheheheheh!… A few other articles are very interesting too into the “Archives”. But maybe some of you here know about that website already? Personally, sport is not supposed to be my hobby and sport competition even less; it was something I was totally unfamiliar with until… I become the daddy of a 15 years old boy, handball player just below 6 ft 4 and weighing 90kg who is starting practicing even more this year in a dedicated school in Brittany still!!! He has a 4 years experience in that game. Both his grand dads played handball at quite a good level: the “11 players” outdoor game in the 50s for one and the “7 players” in the 60s for the “youngest” one… An adventure that started more than 60 years ago!… My brother and I never played handball but at school like all the French children do as a natural continuity of what we call “la balle au prisonnier” and you might call the “Dodgeball” (?). Note that none of us before my son did ever play in a club but only for public school university/college or military teams. Our “Handball story” could have stopped there but when my son was 12 years old, his sport teacher at school asked him to go and play in a club. The only thing my son knew about handball was that his 2 grand dads liked the game. He started and then got selected for department and for region too, and asked to move to another club with a higher level, the one where he is playing now. Of course he did not have the same technique as the other boys who started at 6 years old. So we were surprised for those first selections, and the coach said to us: “look at him, look at his size… If the boy is motivated…”
    We are very happy for him now as it has not always be an easy childhood being “different”. Things have changed totally! He has changed, more confident, proud to be a strong guy! Ahahaha! Me too you understand of course?!… I must say here thank you to Pierre his former sport school teacher. It doesn’t matter if my son continues or not into the handball thing, as long as he is happy playing/learning that great game and for the club and at school (quite intense I believe!). He might have opportunities yes, or might not… It’s up to him and the coaching. As much as we can my wife and I will be there if he needs support advice or help. Thus, coming back to the handball in UK, I can only agree with Mr White when he is talking about the kids http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2012/dec/18/handball-funding-uk-sport
    The other day we talked here during a match, at half time, with the supporters, coaches and some players about the amazing growth of the handball in your country after the Olympics and everybody paid attention, and everybody was really happy for the handball and UK! Some happy yes but scared already!!! Ahahahah yes we are french!!! The discussion started and we talked about the UK Sport decision, the difficulties here too compared to other team sports. The feeling was that like in France, the “Road to acceptance” might be as hard and even more. But…
    But when you are watching a game you understand why the Brits must become a great handball nation. I agree with one friend saying it’s like a boxing game with points and possible knock out at any moment during the hour. Like a fight yes, and it reminds me those great words that saved us: “…we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength…whatever the cost may be.….. in fields………….. never surrender”.
    Thanks to you!
    Thanks for reading! All my support and from the others here too!
    Au Revoir,
    Joyeux Noël !

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