Britain’s Olympic debut handled with great care

At least in handball, a British team knows how to score from a penalty, in action here in Wednesday's 2012 test event staged in the special arena within the Olympic Park. Photograph by Philip Barker

PHILIP BARKER is spending the week at the latest 2012 test event, trying to get a handle on handball

It will be the Olympic sports arena closest to the Main Press Centre next year. This week, with construction of the MPC continuing, access to the handball test event for journalists meant a walk of about 15 minutes to reach the venue from an entrance near the Westfield Shopping Centre on the other side of the park.

Since handball was restored to the Olympic programme in the 1970s, no British team has competed at the Games, but the British Olympic Association has entered a men’s and women’s team for London 2012, and they are in action this week, playing yesterday and with their next game scheduled for Friday.

The test event is a six-team women’s competition which runs until Sunday. Great Britain began their campaign with a 22-20 victory over African champions Angola, watched by some excited local schoolchildren, clearly relishing a day away from the classroom.

A quick rundown on handball: long popular in Scandinavia and northern Europe, where it has been played indoors through the bleakest of winters, it is almost like water polo without the water, or basketball with goals rather than baskets. Played with a ball smaller than a football, it is fast and the players exhibit outstanding handling skills.

As with so many sports, the organisers of the test event appear to think that breaks in play need to be accompanied by what passes for “presentation”, although there is a limit to how much you can take of We Will Rock You or the music of 2Unilimited. Giant hands even appeared on the scoreboard to tell the crowd when to applaud. This was something we saw in Beijing and hardly passes for progress. Rather it smacks of presenting sport for those who don’t like sport.

In the run up to this tournament, the Great Britain squad has been going through their paces at Crystal Palace where they generally play in front of crowds of no more than 500. Although they’ve had some media attention, it is nothing to what they can expect next summer. The way they’re approaching it could offer lessons for English rugby.

“We will be under the spotlight, so we have been working closely with UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport to make sure the players are aware of their responsibility as media ambassadors and that they do portray themselves properly and effectively,” John Brewer, the chairman of British Handball, said.

The players have been receiving one-on-one media training. “I think they will cope with the pressure, they’ve been under pressure in a different way. They’ve been living on their own with little money and little attention, so I think this will turn into positive pressure.”

LOCOG head of sport Debbie Jevans defended the decision not to sell tickets for this tests event, though residents of the Olympic boroughs were able to apply for tickets. “As a venue on the park, it is still fundamentally a building site. We are running this to test our operational readiness but through the event itself, we are talking about handball so there is plenty of media coverage in both the broadcast and written press.”

LOCOG claims that some 40,000 youngsters in the UK are now playing handball regularly, a one hundred-fold increase in the last three years. “It was one of the first events to sell out. It is one of those sports that if people see it once, they want to come back and see it again so in no sense a hard sell,” Jeavons said.

A dozen print journalists and a similar number of television crews pitched up on Wednesday, though most homed in on sports minister Hugh Robertson for his take on the BOA’s upcoming defence of their life ban for drugs cheats at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Even when given its own spotlight for a time, it would seem, handball struggles for media attention, it would seem.