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.
Mancunians Rugby League that is. The amateurs from the second city have become the second rugby league club in the northwest (to my knowledge) to establish a handball arm. They follow the lead of the slightly better known Warrington Wolves. Handball Views caught up with Mancunians RL to find out more about why they’ve chosen to play handball and what they make of the game.
Handball Views: Firstly, tell us a bit about yourselves. You’re a rugby league club that’s added a handball section which makes you a bit like a European-model sports club. Why the move into handball in particular?
Stephen Gordon, Mancunians RL: Handball is a fast flowing, team and Olympic sport which has many similarities to our sport, rugby league. Our initial aim was to offer Handball sessions to our members to enable them to improve their skills, but we’ve now begun to attract many new members to the club. To grow the club in membership, marketing and revenue terms and to make it sustainable it’s necessary to have a year round offer, and with Handball being played indoors during the winter months it was a perfect fit
HV: What’s been the level of interest so far?
SG: The interest has far exceeded our targets. We’ve had a great deal of interest from the local community and players within the club. Many who’ve seen the sport at the Olympics and thought ‘I’d like to give that a go!’ We launched two weeks ago and already now have nearly 40 adults signed up to join. We’re going to be based at a local school which has Handball on the curriculum for every year group so we expect the level of interest to grow further once school term starts.
HV: What are your expectations for the club at this stage? Are you looking to build teams to win titles or casual sides to keep people fit? Or a bit of both?
SG: I wouldn’t say we’re expecting to win anything. Our main focus is to develop a junior team in the City and build things up from that. Also, from the interest we’ve seen from our sign up form it looks like we’ll be able to promote provision aimed at beginner adult players – similar to our promotion of touch rugby. We’ll be running an after school club for school aged young people and adult sessions later in the evening.
HV: Handball can be seen as the break-out sport of the Olympics. Did the level of interest surprise you and what do you think the prospects are for handball in this country?
SG: Surprisingly the interest in the sport didn’t shock us – it’s a fast and high scoring game available for everyone and anyone. With the success of Team GB at Olympics more people were going to get involved in more sport and if we’re helping the community engage in Handball, then surely this is good. This can only be great in the long term for the sport.
HV: Finally, if people want to find out more about handball at Mancunians RL who should they contact?
SG: People can sign up for information here http://bit.ly/NWmSu0 or contact Ste on 07872567303
Thanks for talking to us and all the best for the future!