Olympics – Handball Arena

Sweden 17 France 29, Great Britain 17 Brazil 30 (1st August 2012)

The handball arena, or Copper Box as it got renamed to reflect its future as a multi-sport venue (and looking like a copper box) likes to tell visitors that it has the best atmosphere of any venue in the Olympic Park. Whether that’s strictly true of the self-styled “box that rocks”, you get little sense of anything thrilling from the outside. Rust-brown and industrial looking, only if you take a large number of steps back to take in the “R” “U” “N” mirrored sculpture nearby does the place have a single diverting feature on the outside. You could easily walk past and assume it to be the back of a warehouse.

Thankfully, they’ve certainly compensated for the exterior dreariness on the inside, which is bright splash of colour. The sky blue arena floor gleamed under the arena lights, while the multi-coloured seats gave the place a distinctive look, although the normal reason for such random seating patters – to disguise low crowds – was not remotely needed. Instead the colour was then replaced by blues, yellows and greens of France, Sweden and Brazil, as well as the ubiquitous red, white and blue flags of the GB support.

After visiting the temporary hockey and basketball stadiums, the permanent stadium here was a definite step up in quality. It was also a really good design, with 7000 seats in two tiers feeling right on top of the action. It’s tempting to say it’s a bit like a mini Loftus Road, only with more colour and none of the appalling views. It probably doesn’t have Loftus Road’s “best suited for midgets” leg-room either, but I couldn’t say for sure as I’d be allocated a seat in the disabled section at the front of the concourse between the two tiers. I’m not disabled, and nor were any of the people in my section, but none of us were complaining considering the excellent view and amount of space we got.

I can’t say I’m a handball aficionado. It always seemed one of those odd sports that’d crop up on Eurosport now and then, that seemed a bit alien as nobody in the UK seemed to play it. That presented a bit of a problem to the British Olympic Association, who wanted a team in every sport, so it seems they went out looking for players in other sports with certain desirable skills to fill in the gaps caused by the lack of genuine British players.

Before GB could take the floor though, France and Sweden met in a clash that would give a chance to have a clue what is going on before the GB game. Essentially the game is like 6-a-side football (err, but with 7 players) and the ball is thrown rather than kicked. It isn’t that difficult to follow, and the goals come regularly enough that even the worst ADHD afflicted kid could stay focussed, but not so often that they become almost meaningless individually, like in basketball.

I found myself rooting for the Swedish women in the first game, which was a little unfortunate as they got completely thrashed after a decent start. There were far more Swedes in the crowd than French, so they had the bulk of the support, but all the support in the world could help their increasingly ragged defence, as the French attackers burst through to score with increasing regularity. Never mind, both teams got generous applause at the end, before a very short turn-around for the 2nd match.

That second match was Great Britain v Brazil. Realistically this was always going to be a Brazilian win. The GB team is so inexperienced in international play that it doesn’t even appear in the world rankings. What the GB team did have going for them, along with an evident team spirit, was the backing of a hugely supportive crowd. And it was support in the true sense as well. It wasn’t an Eddie-the-eagle style loveable loser kind of support. The crowd really wanted GB to win, and urged encouragement every step of the way.

GB couldn’t have got off to a worse start, conceding a goal in the very first attack, and went 0-2 down shortly after. One was pulled back from a penalty, to a huge roar, but Brazil went down the other end at made it 3-1 almost immediately. From there, both teams traded goals for most of the first half, with GB threatening to pull back, visibly rising from the backing they got, before Brazil would steady their nerves, opening the gap again. At 6-9 it was still a close game that was swinging one way, then the other. What was really hurting Great Britain though was the unforced errors. Passes were being overthrown, chances were being spurned, and fouls were being given away. One of these led to a penalty – and saving one of those must be about the most difficult task in sports – as well as a two-minute suspension. While a player down for those two minutes Britain conceded a further three goals without scoring, taking the score to 6-12, and it effectively ended the game as a sporting contest.

Despite that, the terrific support continued – the positivity of the crowds has been a huge feature of these Olympic Games – and the crowd still urged the team on every step of the way. The game may have been lost, but the crowd still took huge delight in the further 11 goals Great Britain scored, and at the end they got an ovation more befitting winners than 13-goal losers. The Olympian style adage of “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” fitted perfectly, as the team’s efforts were appreciated for the way they carried on giving their all. You couldn’t ask any more, and with my Olympics now over, I couldn’t have asked for it to have been any better either.

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