Why Did Great Britain Build an Olympic Handball Team from Scratch?

British athletes got a crash course in handball. But are they Olympic ready?

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Courtesy of Louise Jukes

British handball player Louise Jukes takes a dive while attempting to score

As a left back on Britain’s Olympic handball team, Kathryn Fudge is used to getting bruised and battered. After sprinting across the court, she must jump several feet in the air before hurling a ball over the heads of defenders and hopefully past a goalkeeper. It’s not uncommon to have a face-plant on the floor. Despite her lightning-quick pivots and her ability to fire shots past the sport’s aggressive defenders, the 22-year-old remains a relative newbie. “Four years ago, I’d never even heard of handball,” she says. “In school it wasn’t part of the curriculum, so I never saw it. And it’s still not a known sport in Britain.”

That may be changing. With the U.K. fielding its first ever Olympic handball team, Fudge and her teammates hope to push handball into the mainstream — or at least pull it out of the unknown. They’ve certainly got support. Shortly after London won the bid in 2005 to host the 2012 Olympics, U.K. Sport, the government body that invests millions in Britain’s top athletes annually, decided to seize on opportunities granted to host nations by the International Olympic Committee. Among them was a free pass to field home teams in sports like handball, which, despite being the most popular team sport for women in Europe, has never caught on in Britain.

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Entering a team required officials to build one from scratch: Britain’s national squads had been disbanded for about two decades. Besides calling on people who had played in local handball clubs, U.K. Sport launched a “Sporting Giants” talent search to find potential Olympians, most of whom had never played handball.

Fudge — a very physical player who rises to 6 ft. 1 in. — answered the call in 2008, albeit in a roundabout and passive way. “My mum saw an advert in a local newspaper looking for people to go to the Olympics in handball, volleyball and rowing,” she says, referring to the Sporting Giants application. “I asked if I had to do anything, and she said, ‘No, I’ve just filled it in for you.’ I was like, ‘O.K. then.’ ”

About 550 women applied. Within weeks, Fudge found herself in a gymnasium with 100 other women watching a YouTube video of a handball match. Most of them struggled to follow the rules. Later, in full view of a panel of experts with stopwatches and clipboards, they dribbled balls and sprinted across the gym floor and attempted to throw balls into a net. After a series of trials, 30 women advanced to a weekend away in Denmark, where the existing members of the fledgling national squad had started training. Three of the new recruits, including Fudge, eventually made the Olympic team. “It was so surreal,” she says. “I was 18 at the time and had just finished school. My mates were going off to university, and by the end of the summer I was going off to Denmark to play handball.”

In order to build a viable team, officials decided the British squad would live and train at an academy in the Danish city of Aarhus. British funding covered accommodations and food and gave the women small monthly stipends. “To go from earning quite a bit of money to getting £200 [$310] of pocket money was a big challenge,” says Louise Jukes, a physiotherapist who quit her job after passing the Sporting Giants screening. To make ends meet, many players have had to borrow money from their parents. Others have supplemented their stipends by babysitting, working as receptionists or cleaning sports halls part time.

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In 2009, after the handball squad absorbed a major funding hit, players dispersed across Scandinavia to learn their trade as members of professional and semiprofessional teams — an option unavailable back at home. It was good training and a major boost to morale. “Handball in Denmark is like [soccer] in Britain,” says Laura Innes, the squad’s reserve goalie. “Men’s and women’s league games are on the television, and at sports halls you see elite teams playing in one gym, and then 7-year-olds in the next.” In 2011 the team regrouped at a training center in London’s Crystal Palace, where they now train as a team twice a day, six days a week.

Fraser Snowden, a spokesman for the British Handball Association, believes Britons will leave the Olympics with newfound respect for the  sport. “It’s not just about London 2012,” he says. “We want to use 2012 as the catalyst to show how great handball is.” The indoor sport is well suited to Britain’s unpredictable climate. And it’s cheap to play because it doesn’t require any special kit besides a ball. It’s also more action-packed than soccer, the country’s unofficial national sport. “Fans can sit for 90 minutes watching football, and it’s still 0-0,” he says. “But with handball, there can be 50 goals from start to finish.”

That’s no exaggeration. During matches, which are divided into two 30-min. halves, players can score several goals a minute. They move around the court, passing the ball with the flats of their hands or dribbling it as they run. They may take only three steps between bounces. As a team advances toward the opposition’s goal, defenders can obstruct the ball using their torsos but not their hands, arms or legs. Yanking the ball or punching it from another player’s hands is a big no-no that automatically results in a foul.

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The British team may have mastered those rules, but it has little chance of winning a medal. Thus far its biggest accomplishments have been defeating Angola, the winners of the past eight African Championships, and coming within nine goals of tying Russia. The squad is hoping to make the final eight in London.

Jukes, a former hockey player who now plays handball, says the biggest rewards of competing at a home Olympics won’t come in gold, silver or bronze. “We had a small test event with the [Olympic handball] arena half full, and that sent shivers down my spine,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like with a full crowd in Great Britain outfits.”

She’ll find out when the preliminaries begin on July 28.