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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 07:19 GMT
British handball eyes 2012 glory
By Matt Slater

Germany's Pascal Hens debates a decision at the recent world championship
Like basketball and volleyball, handball is a game for the tall
British handball is hoping a systematic approach to talent spotting will deliver medals at the London Olympics.

The sport's governing body is giving itself five years to assemble men's and women's teams with "podium potential".

The British Handball Association (BHA) has invited talented athletes to try the game in the hope that some can be fast-tracked to international quality.

And on Tuesday a scheme was launched to steer tall people with talent towards handball, rowing and volleyball.

The "Sporting Giants" initiative has been put together by UK Sport, which funds Olympic sport at the elite level, and the English Institute of Sport, the national sports science and medicine network, and is aimed at men and women aged 16-25 "with good all-round athletic ability".

The only other proviso, and no small one, is that women must be 5ft 11in or taller and men must be at least 6ft 3in.

Individuals that fit the bill can apply to the scheme via UK Sport's website and if they make it through an initial screening they will be invited to attend further "sport-specific" testing.

Of course, there is more to success than height but you can't coach people taller

Chelsea Warr
UK Sport
UK Sport's performance consultant Chelsea Warr told BBC Sport that the "tall sports public appeal" was about "leaving no stone unturned" but admitted that 90% of the Britain's Olympic competitors in 2012 were "already in the system, and probably quite advanced in their sports".

However, handball - a fast-paced hybrid of basketball and indoor football played by two teams of seven players - and volleyball are possible exceptions.

Great Britain has no international pedigree or tradition in either sport and is only eligible to enter teams in the Olympic competitions as a result of its host status.

Handball, in particular, is a mystery to most British sports fans.

But Warr is convinced that thorough and creative talent identification can produce results fast, provided it is coupled with top-quality coaching and hard work.

Action from the Germany's defeat of Poland in the recent world championship
Poland's world championship loss to Germany was seen by millions
"It is possible to achieve success in a relatively short period," said Warr, who previously worked in talent identification in her native Australia.

"Look at South Korea in 1988. They used a very systematic talent-grab to assemble medal-winning handball and hockey teams.

"They started from scratch almost. They turned basketball players into (hockey) goalkeepers and sprinters into attackers.

"Winning a medal in handball or volleyball in 2012 is a stretch target, but it is attainable. And even if they fall short the whole process will have wonderful benefits for their sporting pipeline.

"I see our role in this as a bit like a dating agency's. We are putting people together that are right for each other. We are romancing people into the sport.

I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think a medal was possible

Peter Cohen
British handball prospect
"The public appeal is just a phase one filter. Of course, there is more to success than height, but the fact is you don't find many short rowers or volleyball players. And you can't coach people taller."

Lorraine Brown, the BHA's performance programme manager, agreed with Warr's upbeat assessment of both British handball's prospects and the "Sporting Giants" scheme.

"It can definitely be done," said Brown. "The Koreans didn't have much of a handball tradition prior to getting the Olympics but won gold and silver in 1988.

"If we can get into the last eight of the tournament - and I think we can - anything can happen.

"We know it's not going to be easy but we will just have to do it smarter than anybody else. We have already set up an academy in Denmark and have put in place a world-class coaching structure."

The BHA is aiming to be competitive by 2009 when it will host an international tournament to assess the squad's progress. The sport has also been allocated a relatively healthy budget of 1.2m a year.

South Korea celebrate handball gold in 1988
South Korea's handball gold in 1988 is the proof in the talent ID pudding
But nobody should underestimate the size of the challenge.

Great Britain's development squad played its first international training matches last month against a mediocre Australian team and were soundly beaten.

To make matters worse, the Australians went on to lose all of their matches at the world championships in Germany and finished the tournament ranked 24th out of 24.

Those reverses, however, were not enough to putt off Peter Cohen, one of the first raw prospects to try his hand at handball.

"I first read about the chance to try for the British handball team in The Times. It was a pretty light-hearted article but I thought I'd give it a go," said the London-based recruitment consultant.

"I'm not from a team sports background but I have taken to handball pretty quickly. It would definitely suit somebody who was good at basketball or rugby - or any of the team ball sports, really."

Cohen's sporting CV earned him a spot at a talent assessment camp - "the hardest thing I have ever done" - where his athleticism, endurance and "trainability" were tested, and now, three months later, he is training twice a day and playing handball three times a week.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think a medal was possible," said Cohen. "These schemes work. It has been done before."

And with British Olympic chiefs targeting a fourth-place finish in the medal table every contribution to the total will be gratefully received.

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