The not-so splendid isolation of British sport


Who knows that Spain are the world champions? Everybody, right? Tiki-taka, Shakira’s boyfriend, and 4-6-0; there’s nothing left to learn about the greatest side in history.

Hang on a minute, though. I wasn’t actually thinking of Spain’s football team but instead their handball players, who won the final of the World Championship on Sunday, an achievement registered by precisely nobody in the UK.  Nobody? An exaggeration, surely? Perhaps, but neither the broadsheets nor the BBC cared to write a single word about a thrilling tournament resulting in Spain’s first-ever triumph on home soil.

Perhaps it isn’t so shocking considering Great Britain’s non-involvement in the tournament. GB had preceeded their morale-sapping Olympic debut (five games, five humiliations) by coming bottom of their World Cup qualification group, losing home and away to Austria and Israel.

Handball hasn’t had a particularly glorious history in this country. Team GB have in fact only ever won eight international games, five of which were against Jordan (three times), the Faroe Islands, and Oman. They’ve drawn one match. It was against Luxembourg. Only a handful of the current squad are UK-based; most play for clubs abroad in locations ranging from Iceland to Egypt.

It’s not only handball where there’s a problem. Over the past two weeks, the OxStu has covered both Blues basketball teams. Women’s captain Sue Altman suggested that there is an informal hierarchy among University sports and basketball isn’t particularly high up it.  On the men’s Blues roster, just two players are British; the talismanic Karolis Bauza is Lithuanian, and most of the rest are American.

Quite clearly, British sport is strongly isolationist; it struggles to embrace what it doesn’t know. While the NBA still attracts the crème de la crème of Europe’s basketball talent, Euroleague (basketball’s equivalent of the Champions League) clubs are increasingly competitive and usually hold their own against NBA sides. It’s our loss that only one UK side, the now-defunct London Towers, has ever participated in it.

Nowhere is British insularity more apparent than in UK Sport’s bizarre decision to take funding away from sports deemed to have failed at London 2012, such as basketball, handball, and volleyball, ahead of their preparations for the next Olympics in 2016. Concentrating funding in cycling and rowing is effectively conceding that we’re only going to do well in what we’re already good at, so minority sports simply shouldn’t bother.

There are two main problems with this tendency. The first concerns our public health crisis. You don’t have to read the Daily Mail to know that every few days a new study shows that a third of children leave primary school obese, or that British women are the fattest in Europe, or whatever other statistics can be used to reveal a collective lack of fitness. While rowing is an admirable pursuit with many wonderful qualities, it’s impossible to claim that it is more accessible for inner-city kids than basketball or even handball, both of which can be played in any sports centre.

Secondly, our antiquated focus on Commonwealth-only sports is just embarrassing; ever tried explaining cricket to a European? Rugby fares slightly better, if only because a handful of British seamen managed to hammer a love of the oval ball into their colleagues in south-western France. The handball World Cup had all the familiar names – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Russia, and a bunch of crack outfits from Eastern Europe – but Britain hadn’t been invited. Sounds like UKIP’s perfect party.

Football, the beautiful game, is our last bastion of hope. Our world-famous clubs and, erm, consistent national team are the bridge between splendid isolation and European integration. Except, well, they’re not. Not if you consider how infuriatingly few English footballers are prepared to move abroad to learn a bit about the game they play. Which suggests that British sport’s problems don’t simply concern which sports we play but are more about how we relate to other countries’ sporting cultures. We’re not going to win the next handball World Championship, but it would be a step in the right direction if we started caring about it.


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