Alex Gavrilovic is not just well-known at home in Australia and Oceania. Many persons around the globe know Alex as the guy who made the handball event in the Sydney Olympics so successful through all his skills and determination, and they are now likely to feel reassured that he will have the same responsibilities in London 2012.
I first met Alex at the pre-Olympic handball event in Sydney in 1999, where my special task was to help train and select the timekeepers and scorekeepers for the Olympics, and from then on I have always liked his positive attitude, his pragmatism and his ability to get things done also in difficult circumstances. Alex was the Competition Manager in 2000, and he is now about to make the transition to a residency and full-time work in London in preparation for the same role in 2012. But he was still very nice about making himself available for a chat about Sydney, London and everything in between. In fact, Alex was so generous with his time that I have decided to divide my chat with him into three installments: first a segment on the experience related to the Sydney Olympics and the impact on the handball situation in Australia, then a broader view of the struggles of Australia and Oceania, and then finally his views on the 2012 Olympics.
[i]CA: I think it was obvious that the Sydney Olympics meant a major lift in terms of getting PR for handball, getting people involved and trained etc; but was it possible to maintain the momentum afterwards and did the Olympics turn out be of great help for handball for the longer term?[/i]
AG: There is no doubt that the one major thing the Sydney 2000 Olympics achieved (and subsequently the coverage provided of the handball event at both Athens and Beijing continued) was the general knowledge of the population about the sport. Before 2000 it would have been hard to meet someone who would immediately know what handball is and confusion with a tennis-ball game played in Australian schoolyards was common. After the Olympics, and to this day, people that I meet generally know the sport and I commonly get the response: “I saw it at the Olympics”, “what a great game” when I tell people that I am involved in handball. This general knowledge about the sport remains the greatest legacy from Sydney 2000 and subsequent Olympics. However, it has not led to dramatic increases in participation in the sport.
[i]CA: In all honesty, I think it is fair to say that the same frustrations were felt in the United States in the aftermath of both the 1984 and the 1996 Olympics; it is really a tough task to counter the lack of traditions and to make headway in the competition against all the established team sports![/i]
AG: Sadly, during the years 1997 – 2006, when handball in Australia received an enormous boost and enjoyed the interest of major sporting and government organisations in Australia, including TV, the Australian Olympic Committee, The Australian Sports Commission, etc, the then leadership of the Federation did not, in my opinion, take full advantage of the circumstances to set up the sport for the participation and development gains that would be achieved as a result of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Handball in Australia (similar to the experience in the USA and the UK) finds it hard to compete for athletes, government support, media exposure and sponsorship against the well-established (primarily non-Olympic sports) which are prevalent in English-speaking countries (e.g. Netball, Rugby [league and Union], AFL, Gridiron, cricket, etc).
(to see the remainder of this article, click on ‘read the rest’!)[/i]
[i]CA: What about the large number of volunteers in the Olympics, many with old handball background from other parts of the world, combined with a great deal of enthusiasm; were they not able to keep it going and also to recruit others?[/i]
AG: As a result of the Olympic experience, referee and official training is structured, however, numbers here remain low. Broad-based social and club handball competitions are still missing and therefore exposure to the greater population remains low. The sport enjoys interest surrounding major events like the Olympic Games but this “spike” does not translate into sustained growth. Also, in terms of our referees and officials, the great gains made leading up to Sydney 2000 were not sustained because the IHF did not commit to inviting our referees and officials to continue to be involved in major events such as World Championships. This was an opportunity lost and I still can’t understand why the IHF did not support it.
[i]CA: More generally, how do you view the assistance being provided by the IHF and other bodies, in connection with the Olympics and afterwards?[/i]
AG: The IHF provided great assistance to the sport in the lead up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, particularly in the preparation of our referees and technical officials. I enjoyed a great working relationship with many key persons in IHF, including some Competition Managers from previous Olympics, which ensured that the planning for and conduct of the Olympic event was smooth and effective. I felt supported and this helped me a lot in my efforts to do my job in a way that led to accolades from the IHF.
Since the 2000 Olympics, the IHF have offered Australia modest support in the way of development resources which has been gratefully received and effectively utilised. The greatest support has been in the support for Oceania international events. I believe that the recent proliferation of events in Oceania (organised by the French-speaking nations) has come as a result of the initiative shown by Australia (as supported by the IHF) since 2004 in particular. I think that the IHF have shown good support for the sport but have been somewhat held back by the situation related to the Oceania Handball Federation. Since this has now been resolved, I expect even more support will flow from the IHF. Australia and the IHF have continued to enjoy an excellent relationship and I know that the IHF sees Australia very much in a leadership role for the region.
to be continued