Handball on the BBC, it’s getting a bit habit forming. Anyway, this morning BBC Breakfast broadcast a piece from Ruislip about how they – and other Olympic sports more generally – are coping with increased demand from the public for ‘minority sports’. Apparently there are only 8 full time professional coaches for handball in England.
Good luck to everyone working to build a handball Olympic legacy and you can see the report here.
The news that UK Sport will be committing the same £580m to the Rio games that it put into the performance programme for London is, of course, good news. The fear was that despite a haul that makes Beijing and every Olympic games since 1908 look like a bit of a flop that there would be no money to continue the push for glory: austerity would trump glory.
The other good news from London 2012 is of course that handball, given the chance to be put in front of the British public, was the break-out sport of the games. The Copper Box rocked. Journalists from the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian came, saw and left enrapt. Radio 1 DJs did the same. Despite GB not winning they competed hard and earned some rightful plaudits. When the finals came they weren’t shunted to the red button they were on the main channels. The finale to France’s gold medal performance against Sweden was introduced live on BBC 1 by Sue Barker. In the afterglow social media buzzed with new clubs, taster sessions, email enquiries taking hours to answer.
So many positives. From not existing when London was awarded the games to a team and a sport etched clearly in the public consciousness. From no British players anywhere to Holly Lam-Moores at Danish elite club Viborg, and others besides. The daydream has this as a foundation. All UK Sport need to do is cough up the dough to continue at any level. But, of course, it is far from being that simple.
UK Sport’s money is performance based. It is a carrot attached to a stick of toughest steel. Only medal prospects or sports capable of meeting performance targets keep their funding. The rest scrabble around until they can ask again. Handball had its funding slashed in 2009 but had the same performance targets kept in place. It will now be assessed against these and future Olympic medal potential.
The only way Great Britain, either men or women, will qualify for the 12-team 2016 games is if they host a qualifying tournament and don’t tell anybody else where it’s being held. There are minnows in handball that Great Britain could beat but there are so few spots open to qualifiers: the route for most is through continental and World championships. UK Sport will not be offering further support to handball if the sole target is a good performance in the next Olympic games.
But what is true for Rio need not be true forever. Handball has great potential to be the sport of choice for a significant number of people. It is an obvious choice for anybody looking at offering competitive sport to boys and girls. If you’re a rugby or football club looking to build stamina, strength and agility it’d be a great game to add on in training. Whether that creates enough of a base to build a competitive national side out of I doubt anyone could say, especially given that by an ironic accident of geography Britain are stuck in the European federation rather than, say, Oceania, and so will take beating after beating from established nations as they learn the game more fully.
So the challenge can’t and shouldn’t be to get back into the Olympics for 2016 and compete for a medal. If that remains UK Sport’s sole measure then we can expect big-up funding for rowing and athletics where medals rely on the brilliance of an individual or a small group rather than team sports that require a pool of thousands from which to draw the cream. The argument may be made that with seed funding now we can push for 2020. Eight years is a long time but the teenagers inspired now will be mature enough to compete on the world stage then. It would seem a realistic aim but unlikely to be significantly rewarded. Handball will need to draw even more heavily on Sport England, Awards for All and the handful of other participation-based funding ‘opportunities’ that may or may not exist once George Osborne’s austerity axe has swung.
There is hope though. The passion for the game amongst its volunteers, its clubs and its supporters is real and was already leading to massive leaps in participation before the Olympics. The people involved in leading the sport have – to this outsider at least – shown remarkable nous in the years since London was awarded the games. Perhaps naively I’m confident that we are not heading back to the darkness of the world before 2005. This next chapter for handball in Britain is going to be tough but it’s also going to be worth watching and, if you can, being part of.
In a match whose finale was broadcast live on BBC 1 France emerged victorious over Sweden. The Swedes were tenacious but ultimately were always chasing the game. They played well above expectations in even reaching the final but the defeat does represent the fourth time they’ve finished second in the Olympics whereas France joined the Norwegian women in retaining their Beijing title.
The decisive section of the match came after twenty minutes when France turned a 7-7 tied game into a 10-7 advantage that Sweden were never able to pull back despite the best efforts of Niclas Ekberg (6/8) who presumably did his search for a club after the collapse of AG København no harm at all. The French enjoyed most of the support of the Basketball Arena and there were suitably insane scenes after the final whistle went.
Later, according to YouTube, the French dismantled the L’Equipe TV set live on air. You can do that sort of thing if you’re Olympic champions.
So it has come down to this. Where once were twelve, now there are two. Today’s final in the incongruously-named Basketball Arena will be between two sides who played in their semi finals as if it were their destiny to be in gold medal game. There the similarity ends because France are current Olympic and World champions and Sweden have not won a major title in a decade.
Defence, in particular goalkeeping, won the day in the both semi finals: Mattais Andersson stopped 13 shots as Sweden blocked Hungary but Thierry Omeyer topped that by saving 19 of 41 shots against Croatia. He was particularly effective in the opening ten minutes as France built a comfortable lead that meant that the Croats were always chasing the game.
Despite the similarities in the building blocks of their semi final victories it is hard to see past France who will surely have too many weapons for Sweden. For Sweden to win they will need Omeyer to have an off day, they will need somehow to get a steady flow of fast breaks (they had 6 against Hungary, scoring 4; France allowed Croatia only one) and they will also need to up their solidity at the back. France are not Hungary, they will be harder to tempt into rushing their game. France can also spread their scoring personnel more broadly than Sweden.
But this is a final and strange things happen in finals. That said, something beyond strange will need to happen for France to lose and so my prediction is that France will hit the front early and stay there, winning by 4.
Pre-tournament favourites Norway in the end proved too strong for a tenacious Montenegro side in the women’s final last night. The medal was Montenegro’s first-ever Olympic medal. Norway struggled to find their rhythm – missing more shots from open play than they scored – but in the end had too much class and emerged 26:23 winners.
The bronze medal match was a classic. Two periods of extra time were required to separate South Korea and Spain after the Koreans converted a fast-break half a second too late to take the match in normal time. The final score was 31:29 to Spain as the Koreans notably tired throughout the four demanding periods of additional time.
So, the final standings are:
GOLD – Norway, SILVER – Montenegro, BRONZE – Spain
Norway v Montenegro, 8.30pm (BBC Olympics 6, Sky Channel 455 and online)
It’s the day of reckoning for Norway and Montenegro: the prize-winning veterans and the newest nation and the block. Norway are, as the commentators never tire of saying, the current Olympic, World and European champions. Montenegro, on the other hand, are not.
Montenegro finished 11th in last year’s World Championship, losing 28-27 to Norway in the group stages. Nor have they troubled the medals in their two European championship appearances. That said. all but three of their team play for Budućnost who just so happen to have won the EHF Champions League in 2012, knocking out the Norwegian giants Larvik on the way. It goes without saying that for Montenegro to be in with a shout they will need Bojana Popovic (playing her final match before retirement) to be at the top of her game, controlling the attacks, and for Katarina Bulatovic to get opportunities to bullet in her 7m shots. The defence we can expect to be physical.
Norway haven’t really looked like champions so far. They qualified fourth out of their group and then had to overturn a half-time deficit to see off Brazil in the quarter finals. The Koreans who they beat by 6 in the semi final were plagued by injuries. But they are in the final and the title is theirs to defend. If Montenegro need to rely on their steady build-ups and cool heads Norway will surely need to get their ridiculously effective fast-breaks to work (8/10 saw off Brazil, against Korea it was a mere 2/3). With that weapon they may stun Montenegro into hurrying their otherwise methodical game. A repeat of Katrine Haraldsen’s 52% save percentage probably wouldn’t go amiss either.
Google Translate has a Montenegrin newspaper describing their team’s appearance in the final as being the most significant achievement in their country’s short history; when Norway won the World Championship in 2011 it broke television viewing records. This game matters and it should be a final that lives up to it.
My prediction? Norway by 3.
8.30pm, Croatia v France (BBC Olympics 7, Sky Channel 456 & BBC online)
Congratulations if you predicted that these would be the four teams to contest the men’s semi finals at the Olympics. Double congratulations if you put money on as your winnings have probably got you a small Caribbean island. But these are the four and they divide into two distinct semi finals, one a heavyweight contest the other a not-so-heavyweight contest.
In the latter is Sweden who are obviously a Handball Giant (TM) but who haven’t won a major title since 2002. This probably explains why they reacted like they’d won the gold medal when they beat Denmark 24:22 in the quarter final. They will need to stay focused to get past Hungary who have equalled their previous best in the Olympics by getting to this stage.
Hungary got to the semi final by beating Iceland in a double extra time match. They showed their strengths in coming from behind at the death twice (once in normal time, again in the first extra time) but also failed to close out big leads during the second half of the match.
My prediction is for a match with wild fluctuations in the lead but that Sweden will emerge victorious where they will play …
Both France and Croatia came from behind in their quarter finals. Croatia endured a particularly physical encounter against Tunisia and were particularly indebted to the fact that Ivan Cupic was able to keep his head and keep scoring. They shouldn’t need quite so much protection from the referees today.
France scored their winning goal on 59:59 having overturned a 3-goal deficit at half time. They’ll need to improve on a shooting percentage of 49% and get some scoring support for William Accambray (who got that last-second goal).
My prediction is for an insanely tight match with occasional violent conduct but that France will edge it by the odd goal in 57.
So having predicted that I look forward to a Hungary v Croatia final.