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Bobby White on UK Sport decision to scrap Olympic handball funding

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GREAT Britain captain Bobby White writes for the Citizen about UK Sport’s allocation of funding for elite athletes in the lead-up to Rio 2016.

In the past week there has been a whole host of sports related news, ranging from the BBC Sports Awards where Bradley Wiggins took home the SPOTY trophy – while Team GB and Paralympics GB were crowned Team of the Year – to the eagerly awaited funding announcements from Sport England and UK Sport.

I was lucky enough to be at the awards on Sunday night and given that I am/was a part of #OneTeam, I felt a huge sense of honour and pride to be put in the same bracket as Mo and co. It felt like my efforts had been acknowledged, despite neither of the GB Handball teams achieving the standards set by UK Sport. Hold that thought for later.

The following day Sport England, who are responsible for grass roots sports development across England, announced that they will be funding the England Handball Association £1.15 million as a reward for the excellent work the organisation has done in the last five years, with almost no funding whatsoever.

England Handball recently reported an almost four fold increase in participation over the last three years. With these stats in mind, you cannot fault the support from Sport England to develop the grass roots of the game. I for one was over the moon when I heard the news.

Twenty-four hours later and the British Handball Association, as well as the associations for basketball and volleyball, were informed that their World Class Programmes would receive zero funding for the Rio 2016 Olympic cycle. Cue mass media attention and an outcry for a review of the way the sports are funded.

I Tweeted ‘disappointed would be an understatement’ and having had some time to reflect on that and read numerous articles regarding the decision, I still feel let down by UK Sport and slightly miffed at some comments I have seen on various articles on the web. However, I do accept that sport divides opinions and UK Sports opinion was that GB Handball wouldn’t qualify for Rio. They may well have been right.

The reason I am disappointed is that we are all put in the same bracket, as #OneTeam, as mentioned before, and as a result judged on our ‘medal winning prospects’.

In 2009, GB Hockey was funded £15 million for their men’s and women’s squads and delivered one bronze medal. They received a slight increase in their funding for the Rio 2016 cycle. Compare that to the initial £1.8 million handball received in 2009 and the additional £1.2 on the way to London. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the difference in investment is huge and equates to a difference in investment of around £500,000 per player for hockey and £100,000 per player for handball.

Why should we be judged to the same standards? Hockey already has a fantastic infrastructure in the UK, along with cycling, rowing and athletics, and we know handball is still a long way behind in this aspect. Hopefully the funding from Sport England will go some way towards closing that gap over the next few years, but the point I am trying to get across is: why would talented children want to play a sport where there is no national team or even no support whatsoever at the performance end? Surely the gifted and talented will strive for excellence and want to play traditional sports like football, rugby and hockey?

At London 2012, the average age of the men’s handball team was 23 and on average we had 30 appearances for GB. Compare that to our competition who were on average six years older and 150-200 appearances better off, and you then start to see the gulf in experience of the teams.

With a little funding and four more years under our belts, maybe we will be in a position to really challenge the likes of Argentina, Tunisia and South Korea. Another four years down the line and who knows? France, Sweden and Serbia? But now that already steep hill becomes a bloody big mountain to climb.

Handball is the most popular team sport for girls on the planet and the £1.15m from Sport England will hopefully go some way to increasing girls’ participation at home, but again there is no investment in the GB programme. So why would girls bother?

Let’s have a look at some other investment in grass roots sports: Football £30m, cycling £30m, netball £25m, softball £2m....

All of a sudden it appears that handball is still at the bottom of the pecking order, despite proving that we are smashing our targets in terms of introducing the sport at grass roots level. I can’t honestly believe that football deserves anywhere near that much, but then again, I don’t make the decisions.

I am a realist and I do not expect to change the minds of the powers that be or even the people that are saying ‘what’s the point in funding these sports?’ I accept and understand the position we are in and that means I will continue to work in developing the sport in the UK until we are in a position to compete financially with the likes of hockey.

We need to look for alternative ways of creating a world class training environment. We must go back to the drawing board and find ways to adapt our training methods and programming so that we can continue to strive for excellence and aim to challenge at international level.

Opinion is divided and it depends on how you personally measure legacy that will decide whether or not you care about the development of this and the other sports that have been cut.

For me, putting handball on the sporting landscape of the UK was always the best outcome we could achieve, and personally, I think we have done that. A lot of hard work still needs to be done so that it stays there, and isn’t swept under the carpet by the non-believers.

 

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