Handball – a winter sport…

The current international competition calendar calls for the men’s and women’s World Championships to follow the pattern of always taking place in January and December respectively. The same goes for the European men’s and women’s Championships. As is right now happening in Austria, it means that a large proportion of these events are held in winter climate, especially, as is often the case, when they are organized in Central Europe or the Nordic countries.

While handball, of course, is playing these events indoors, it still means that the organizers, the participants and the spectators have to reckon with the complications and the caprices that the winter weather may cause. It may have an effect on the scope for recreational and social activities between games, but normally it is related to the issue of transportation to and from match sites and training etc. Rarely does it have an impact on the conduct of the games. But it does happen!

From my personal experience I can mention a situation where snow and ice on power lines caused temporary electrical failure and a commensurate postponement of matches. I also remember a scary episode where a bus with a team skidded off the road, although fortunately without any injuries as a result. But once inside the handball arena one tends to be able to assume that everything will be OK.

In one relatively recent case, the Men’s World Championship in Tunisia in January 2005, it seemed rather safe to assume that the climate would give us a break from any worries about the impact of cold temperatures. But we were less than well-informed about typical temperatures, and we were also surprised by the state of the hall for one of the four preliminary groups. We encountered a situation where the temperature inside the hall was so low that we spent a week shivering and getting numb, despite learning quickly about the need for bundling up with all the warm clothes we could find.

Coat, scarf, cap and gloves were needed between games and during half-time, for those of us who were on IHF duty and had to sit still during three consecutive games, looking proper in blazer and tie on world-wide television. The players were fine as long as they were moving, but there were several intended substitutions that never materialized, because the players on the bench did not have time to shed all the layers of clothes before it was too late. The two teams that seemed to take it in more in strides were the cold-weather veterans from Iceland and Russia. But not even they were prepared for what would happen precisely in the game between the two of them.

Nothing seemed amiss during the warm-up, but it soon became clear as the game started, especially with quick steps and changes of direction needed for the attacking players outside the 9-meter line on one side, that something ‘slightly unusual’ was going on. The Icelandic team mysteriously skidded around and lost the ball on the attack several times early in the game. Frequent time-outs and wiping did not help. Finally I had to conclude that more drastic measures were needed and the game was halted. A discussion with the organizers suggested that their normal cleaning methods, suited for a wood floor, had inappropriate been used for the artificial playing surface. Nothing could really be seen, but apparently the cleaning residue, combined with the frigid temperature and condensation caused by sweating players, made for a surface that behaved like a sheet of ice.

A normally reliable method for this is to apply alcohol in large quantities; fortunately not vodka or scotch, which might have been harder to find, but the industrial variety. After some search, and then a period of intensive scrubbing and drying, the game could finally be resumed after a half-hour delay. Not an ideal situation in a game broadcast live abroad, but fair conditions and, above all, player safety must be paramount. Our Icelandic friends caught up and had the game tied at half-time, but in the end the experience may have caught up with them and they lost the game.

A change in the competition calendar is being sought by many of the major federations and clubs for good reasons, and the episode above may provide additional arguments as to why this might be advisable…