As London 2012 draws to a momentous finale today, MM reporter David Keyworth describes his trip to the Olympic Games, and his first impressions as a handball virgin.
A starting pistol would normally need to be fired by my bed to get me up at 4am. But a visit to the Olympics was on offer.
I had been determined not to set foot in London during the Olympics. The thought of taking part in a world record attempt to see how many people could squeeze into a tube train did not appeal. Why not just watch the games at home?
Yet when my friend came across a few complimentary tickets and decided to offer me one, it almost felt like it was meant to be. Or at least I didn't want to appear ungrateful.
Once we got to London, transport anxieties began to fade. Arrows guided us on the walk from Euston to St Pancras, like an attentive teacher on a school trip. The journey from St Pancras to Stratford took ten minutes overground on the aptly named Javelin train.
We made our way through the airport style security, heavily staffed by the army, and we were in the Olympic Park. The place has the feel of a large festival site.
It beggars belief that an area equivalent to 357 football pitches, in the overcrowded capital and in view of Canary Wharf, was available for development.
Our goal was the 6,500-seater Copper Box a.ka. the Box that Rocks, to see the women’s handball quarter final. Brazil were to take on reigning Olympic champions Norway.
With six goals inside the first five minutes, it became clear quite quickly that this is not a sport played at the pace of crown green bowling.
In the pre-match build-up we were told that handball is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. But it still managed to be a new one on me. The GB teams were only set up six years ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that both the men and women’s teams failed to win any games in the preliminary rounds. It was a cruel reward for Salford-born Ciaran Williams. The 24-year-old gave up university to focus on the sport.
If royal approval signifies GB handball’s prospects, there may have been a hopeful sign though. The Duchess of Cambridge turned up to support Burnley-born Holly Lam-Moores and the rest of the women in their match against Croatia.
Handball is a kind of combination of basketball, football and rugby (especially the tackling). It is played on a 40m long, 20m wide court. Players can only hold the ball for three seconds and take three steps before dribbling the ball or passing it. Goals are scored when it is literally thrown into the net.
At the end of the first 30-minute half, Brazil were sambar-ing their way to victory.
Their top goal scorer Alexandra Nascimento was impressive as were the reaction-saves of goalkeeper Chana Masson.
However, in the second half, the sophisticated team play of Norway pays off. They edge into the lead after 23 minutes and Scandinavian cool evaporates as fans and players rejoice in a 21–19 victory.
Chana Masson collapses in tears but, all being well for her, she should be keeping goal in front of a home crowd in 2016.
By that time handball in the UK might have come off the bench in terms of popularity. There’s no reason why such a frenetically paced team-game shouldn’t be part of the school-sports legacy currently talked up by politicians.
Could Team GB win in Rio? Well, if it is possible to get from Manchester to East London before 8.30am on a weekday morning, then anything is achievable.