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”I think handball is in a great position to develop over the next few years” — Ex-GB captain Bobby White on his career, the Olympics and handball’s future in the UK

Bobby White belongs to an exclusive club.

He is the only man in history to captain Great Britain’s handball team at the Olympic games. Not just any games either. London 2012; the year when the greatest show in sport came to our shores.  

Olympic stories are as varied as they come. While countless athletes tell of the sacrifices they have been making since they learned to walk, Bobby’s story began just five years before the games.

At 24, Bobby was a recent graduate of the University of Northampton with a Sports Science degree who pursued football in his spare time, when he saw Steve Redgrave advertise a UK Sport talent search. The advert was on the lookout for people over 6”3, under the age of 25 and playing sport to a reasonable level with their hands.

The aim was to find players that might be able to transition to handball and help populate a side that had been granted entry to the first ever Olympic Games due to their status as hosts.

Six months later and 2,500 applicants later, the former-Newport Pagnell and Ardley United goalkeeper was offered a contract to join the British Handball Academy based in Denmark. An ideal place to be considering Denmark’s rich history of handball goalkeeping; both Peter and Kasper Schmeichel credit their days spent playing the sport in their homeland as invaluable to their future careers.

After playing for clubs across the country, his breakthrough came when he was offered the chance to join Austria’s most successful club, Bregenz Handball.

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Even playing with the second team afforded opportunities so few British players get to experience — the chance to play alongside players of Champions League calibre and who were part of the Austria national team.

This exposure led to Bobby being offered his first professional contract in 2010 at Greek club AO Kydon Chania.

“It was a fantastic experience going out there,” Bobby said. “The club was very serious, they had high expectations of all their players and I was living 50m from the beach in Crete. Unfortunately, due to the financial crisis, the club went bankrupt so I couldn’t stay out there, and I ended up moving to a club in France [Valence.]

“I was lucky to travel the continent and experience different cultures and more importantly play a good level of handball.”

The whole experience was building up to the 2012 games though and Bobby not only had the opportunity to represent his country, but he was given the highest honour of being made captain.

It was always likely to be more about the experience as Britain were drawn against reigning world champions France and five-time world champions Sweden — both would later contest the gold medal match.

Beijing’s runners-up Iceland, 10-time African champions Tunisia and Argentina — who had contested all of the previous nine Pan American Championship finals — completed the group.

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Bobby said: “It’s quite surreal, looking back it doesn’t really seem like it was me. I never set off dreaming to be captain of the handball team. When I was as kid, I was only thinking about playing football, but I’ve been given the opportunity to fall in love with handball, represent my country and play in front of 6,500 people at the Copper Box.

“It was a fantastic time experiencing the media circus as well as meeting royalty and all the other famous athletes. The best part was I got to share it with my family and friends.”

Great Britain may have finished with a 0-10 record across the men and women’s tournaments, but in truth, appearing at the Olympics was far above the capabilities of a country with no tradition of playing the sport. The games remain the only major tournament Britain have competed in.

Handball’s status as a minority sport is confirmed by Sport England’s estimation that in 2018 there were 25,500 people participating in handball at all levels, compared to 11 million in football.  

These figures are in stark contrast to mainland Europe and Scandinavia where handball is one of the most played and supported sports.   

“Most of the players here are either students or people working full time jobs. Abroad I was in environments where the expectations of players were much higher and the fitness demands were greater — you can’t place those demands on players here, there’s just not enough hours in the day,” Bobby explained.

“There needs to be a shift in how clubs are supported which is not going to happen because there seems to be very little appetite from commercial partners and sponsors to put in funding.

“The only way you can do that is to increase the membership fees, but then it’s counterproductive, because then you’re asking people to pay the sport rather than play the sport.”

Handball is not funded by UK Sport — the body responsible for investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport in the UK — despite the sport’s long campaign for a fairer funding model that would offer baseline funding to all Olympic and Paralympic sports.

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The recent announcement of a progression tier of funding for the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Olympic cycles to “enable sports and athletes to take the first step on the performance pathway” provides hope for handball, but there is a long way to go to see if this is a viable option.

Instead, the sport relies on funding from Sport England, who are supplying £1.415m worth of National Lottery and Government funding between 2017 and 2021, an increase of more than £260,000 from the previous cycle.   

If things are to improve, handball must look to the next generation, something of particular interest to Bobby. After London 2012, he stepped away from playing the sport to start a family and focus on continuing the Olympic legacy.

Firstly, by setting up the Bucks Bullets near his home in Milton Keynes as well as taking on the role of National Performance Manager for England Handball.

“We aim to help aspiring players at our regional under-16 academies. We give them additional opportunities to extend their talent. As well as training once or twice a week at their club, they get extra sessions with us. We also teach them how to coach and referee,” he said.

Each of the five regional academies has a boys and girls squad consisting of 16 players, with 80 places available for players to graduate onto the Diploma in Sporting Excellence at the age of 18, which is a recognised qualification equivalent to an A-level.

Bobby continued: “Here we look at their nutrition, their fitness, sports psychology, lifestyle factors and career progression. It’s about trying to come out of it as the best person you can be. Most progress onto higher education or take up our scholarship opportunities in Denmark.

“If they head off to university, we try to signpost them to universities that have either a good club nearby or a good university set up. We don’t experience many drop-outs at this stage, they are more likely a few years down the line once they’ve been to uni and move off into a different career direction. Although we try to make sure the players in the pathway are the ones most likely to stay in handball.

“Getting them involved with the GB youth categories incentivises them to continue. Right now is the first time ever we have had under-17, under-19 girls and senior women along with under-18, under- 20 boys and senior men setups.

“If we can keep stocking those national teams, it’s going to put us in a good position to start challenging the more established countries across Europe.”

Despite the positives here, the problems of high membership fees, lack of full-sized courts and travelling distance to matches are all factors that deter local players and are issues England Handball are striving to address.

This means that Britain’s best are often forced abroad to truly advance their careers.

“I will always advocate players moving abroad to get experience until the league here is capable of sustaining a players progress. You get to the point in England when the league isn’t as strong as it is in other countries,” Bobby said.

“The clubs here are under financial duress because of the cost of hiring the sports halls to train in and the fact that you can’t get everyone at training all the time because they’re there voluntarily. We’re always going to be on the back foot until there is a shift in the way clubs are supported and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

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“You can go abroad to the top leagues in Germany, France and Spain and the clubs have got financial support in place for players, more matches and a higher level of competition. They’ll be training five times a week minimum, you can’t compete with that in the UK where you’re lucky if you train twice a week.”

Bobby remains confident there can be a bright future for handball in the UK though.

He said: ”I think handball is in a great position to develop over the next few years. We have established structures and pathways to cope with the groundswell of activity at grassroots level.

“The introduction of handball into the GCSE curriculum will create a great platform for kids to access the game and we are already seeing improvements in teams entering the National Schools Competition. This means kids progressing into the club competition and talent pathways will be at a higher level than we have ever had before.”

Featured photograph/Flickr/ninjabandit2007

Benjamin Jones
Ben, 21, is a reporter for the Sports Gazette as well as studying for his MA in Sports Journalism and NTCJ diploma. He graduated from the University of Southampton with a degree in History but always knew sport was where his true calling lay. A fan of many sports: Football, Cricket, Formula 1 and Boxing. He gained experience in the industry with The Football Forecast. Rising through the ranks from writer all the way to Site Manager; with his proudest achievement getting the site affiliated with the NewsNow network. He has since moved on to become Site Manager of a new media site called Half Time Cuppa. He is an avid Peterborough United fan but also with a love of Non-League football. It is here he gained hands-on experience with Poole Town in the National League South; spending last season as their match-day commentator as well as match-report writer and Twitter updates.
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