This is a continuation from an earlier installment. Here the focus is mostly on the current situation in Australia and Oceania.
It is then an interesting coincidence that the Australian women’s team is right now going through their final preparations for the women’s world championship in China. So before we get into today’s interview segment, you may want to try this link to an article on the Australian federation’s web site: http://www.handballaustralia.org.au/National%20Womens%20Team.html#Team Naturally, we wish our Aussie friends the very best of luck in this tough competition!
[i]CA: Having continued to play a key role both in your country and in the region, you took over as President of the Australian Handball Federation in 2006. You recently had to resign from that post, due to your upcoming engagement in London. From that perspective, how would you describe overall the current status of handball in Australia? [/i]
AG: As I noted earlier, the overall status of handball in Australia is still that of a “minor” sport. Participation levels have increased overall, particularly in schools, however, this is not translating into significant junior numbers outside the school system. Handball clubs around Australia remain small and composed of dedicated but under-resourced athletes. The State and National teams are remaining competitive but struggle to get financial support, therefore, athlete “burn-out” occurs, particularly in financial terms, with athletes being asked to contribute too much of their own money in support of their national and international competition
[i]CA: What are the stronger aspects and what are the ones that need particular attention?[/i]
AG: Our strongest aspect is that we have a small but dedicated AHF Board, which, although amateur, provides effective leadership for the sport. As a result, local club and State competition tends to be well run although it is low-budget and low profile. We have some excellent athletes competing but, again, the selection pool is small, therefore, it is difficult to send 16 high-quality athletes to international competition and therefore difficult to be truly competitive on the world scene.
Handball in Australia still needs to reach the “tipping point” to become an established broad participation sport. The link between school handball and club handball is still weak or missing. Proper funding of talent identification, elite athlete development, elite training facilities and access to sports science, “institute” programs, regular high level international competition, etc. are still elements that need attention. Australia organises regular international events which are well-run but remain low profile. In summary: more effort is required in broad participation development, elite athlete development and programs and achieving appropriate funding for the sport.
[i]CA: As in so many other sports, Australian handball is affected by its geographic isolation; are there any real ways of compensating for this handicap?[/i]
AG: Yes there is. Clearly the “major” sports of Rugby and Cricket, for example, are continuing to grow and attract teams from around the world. Their advantage is that they have the membership, profile and exposure which ensures sponsorship and funding levels that can sustain events for which the high cost of travel to and from Australia can be overcome. Ultimately, proper funding can compensate for the handicap.
In the meantime, attracting “major” handball nations to Australia for competition is still problematic due to the high cost of coming to Australia, related to our distance from the rest of the handball world. I don’t know that I can “blame” the IHF for that nor that we can expect the IHF to assist us to overcome this issue directly. However, I know that the IHF is keen for Australia to host a World Championship in due time, therefore, there will be another opportunity for the IHF to support the development of the sport in this way.
[i]CA: Also as in other sports, while struggling with its own development and resources, Australia tends to be needed as the ‘engine’ for other countries in Oceania; how do you see the overall development in recent time in Oceania and what can Australia do in this regard?[/i]
AG: I have already indicated that there has been a resurgence of international competition within Oceania and this has proven to be a real boost for us and the other nations in the region. However, issues related to the leadership of the Oceania Handball Federation have, in my opinion, held the development of the sport at a regional level back for many years. I am pleased to say that the Oceania Handball Federation has recently been restructured, new officials elected and a new Constitution adopted. The IHF have made an even stronger commitment to support international events as a result. The current AHF President, Paul Smith, has been elected to the Presidency of the Oceania Handball Federation, to use his words: “at the insistence of the other Oceania nations”, so you can see that Australia is seen very much in a leadership role.
[i]CA: In soccer, Australia decided to join Asia. (And now we have the effect that Australia has qualified for the 2010 World Cup as one of the Asian representatives, while New Zealand just qualified from Oceania.) Has the same idea ever come up in handball? [/i]
AG: Football in Australia is enjoying a great revival. (even to the common use of the name “football” rather than “soccer”!) It has for a long time been a major participation sports in Australia, but this was not reflected in the sport’s profile or international performance. The recent changes, including better structure at the peak, more funding, a new national competition, commitment to elite level performance etc., have been reflected in the national team’s improved results. This of course has re-invigorated public interest. It is still behind Rugby but getting stronger every year. The national team’s exposure to the Asian competition has significantly lifted performance.
There was an idea to emulate Australian football by having Australian handball join the Asian handball zone. This proposal was rejected by the Asian Handball Federation. I sense a fear that Australian handball will eventually improve like it has in many sports and result in a dominant Australia at the cost of other Asian teams in qualifiers for World Championships and so on. The advantage of not being a member of Asia is that there is a direct Oceania handball spot for World Championships which Australia can fill due to its dominance in the region. Whilst I understand the benefits of more competition via the Asian zone, the reality is that Australia would struggle to qualify for World and Olympic Championships via this zone and therefore, having an Oceania place remains very important and valuable to Australia at this time.