British fans feelin’ handball fever

Inside the Olympic Park, the handball venue is the “Box That Rocks.”

The so-called Copper Box is earning a reputation for generating some of the wildest and loudest crowds of the London Games — a surprise for many in a country without an Olympic handball history or victory.

The cheering, whistling and roaring comes from the stands, while the grunts and cries emerge from the parquet as bodies crash into each other. Luckily for fans, this physical and fast-paced sport is teeming with national rivalries and delivers plenty of goals.

“The buzz in handball is incredible. It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” Britain men’s player Mark Hawkins said. “(The Copper Box) is the best place in the world at the moment.”

Handball sees players dribbling and passing their way up and down the court, often relying on no-look passes and neat flicks to help open up the tightly packed defense. The continued pulse of banging bodies seems to be striking a cord with the public as players fly through air toward goal, hanging as long as possible for the goalkeeper to reveal an open spot where they can send a 62-mph shot into the net.

“We came here because it was the only ticket we could get. We watched for the first time last week, and it’s really fast and not too technical, so we were really excited to get down here and it was even better in real life,” said Adrian Green, 43, and from Hertfordshire, who was watching alongside his 10-year-old son Luis. “It’s attractive because you think how great a sport it is since you can play that on the beach or with your friends.”

The sport was developed in Denmark, Sweden and Germany in the late 19th century and was first introduced into the games in 1936. It has long been dominated by European countries, most notably from Scandinavia and southern Europe, with France the reigning Olympic men’s winners and Norway holding the women’s title.

Britain’s men and women’s teams were forced to build from scratch after London won the right to host the Olympics back in 2004.

British players were identified through camps and scouting, and convinced to quit their studies or jobs and travel to a sports academy in Aarhus, Denmark, to receive the training needed to provide quality opposition at the Olympics. The women are led by a Danish coach, the men by a Serb.

The British teams haven’t won a game so far — or even come close to a victory — but still regularly leave the floor to a standing ovation.

Like the fans, the players seem convinced that the reception received means this could be a sport with long-term possibilities in Britain.

“It’s like everybody is loving handball, discovering handball and loving it and we are really proud that they are enjoying it and instigating that,” said women’s player Marie Gerbon, who scored nine goals in Britain’s 31-25 loss to Angola on Friday. “I’ve never played in such a big hall. I’ve already been in crowds like that — in the crowd cheering, not playing.”

Britain’s women have rallied around the tag line “From Zero to Hero.”

“It was never going to be easy. (But) this is just the beginning for us, I hope everyone realizes that,” Britain left wing Holly Lam-Moores said. “We’ve worked so hard the last six years. We’re just learning to walk now, in four years we’ll be running and eight years we’ll be sprinting to win medals.”

For all of the organizers’ talk about Olympics legacy, handball may be one that sticks.

“This is my first time at the Olympics and I am very impressed with the overall atmosphere which is very inspiring especially here at the Copper Box,” South Korea’s Sim Hae-in said on Friday. “I was surprised how popular handball was and how many fans turned up to watch a handball game. It’s brilliant.”