Beijing, Olympic Sports Centre Gymnasium

Of all the impressive numbers the Chinese are posting in Beijing, two that the British are most jealous of are 639 and 28.

Those are the number of Chinese athletes taking part in these Games and the number of different sports they are competing in...that's 28 out of 28.

OK, as hosts they didn't have any qualification worries but the fact they have more than doubled the size of their team in just two Olympic cycles speaks volumes about their ambitions.

Team GB will struggle to double in size over the same time frame but is determined to contest every event on home soil in 2012, which is why I'm at the Olympic handball venue on "Super Saturday".

Handball? What's that then?

Well, it's kind of a cross between basketball and indoor football, and it looks a bit like the kind of game that would evolve over a lunch hour at school.

We had one called "murderball" which involved a rugby ball, a basketball court and crash mats. And it was played in socks (not just socks, obviously).

Handball, however, first appeared at the Olympics in 1936, has roots that go back to ancient Greece and is played in 159 countries around the world.


Britain is one of those 159 but we don't like to talk about it as we don't play it very well - probably because you can't do it sitting down.

But that's all going to change over the next four years (not the sitting down bit) as our Olympic bosses have hatched a zeroes-to-heroes plan that involves sending tall people to Denmark.

Clearly, there is a bit more to than that but I'll spare you the sports science and just boil it down to the essential facts.

First, find a pool of rangy types (ex-basketball players, former rugger-buggers, frustrated football goalies). Then test them for ability and application. And finally, send them abroad to learn the game.

The first part of that plan was the "Sporting Giants" initiative in 2005 (which brought in 5,000 applicants) and the final bit is the British Handball Academy in Aarhus.

The cost? About £1.2m a year - not a huge amount in the general scheme of things but enough to have got other more established sports chattering.

Why Aarhus? Well, the Danes are very good at handball and always have been.

The current European champions, they were the pre-competition favourites to win the men's gold here, although they've made a poor start and will probably need to beat their big rivals Germany on Monday to progress to the last eight.

But is it really realistic to expect Britain to mix it with these teams on the back of five years' training, no matter how targeted the selection process and intensive the training?

Their potential opponents certainly think so.

I asked Egyptian coach Irfan Smajlagic if he thought a country could rustle up a winning recipe that quickly and he said yes, providing you use the best ingredients and cook them properly.

"It is not a hard game to learn but they must start now. You can't do it in less than four years," he said.

French goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer agreed. His team are flying in this tournament and to my untrained eyes look like serious gold medal candidates.

"It will be interesting to see how they go but they are in the right place," said Omeyer, who was Schmeichel-like in the 28-21 win over Spain.

"Denmark has a great reputation in youth handball. It is a good place to learn."


German star Christian Schwarzer went one further. He put himself forward for the British coaching job.

"We've heard about the British plan," he said, without smirking.

"I was joking with (German handball great) Marcus Baur that we should apply for coaching jobs in London. I think it would be a great opportunity. We will see."

But perhaps the most telling comment came from Egypt's Smajlagic.

"It is definitely possible," he said. "Perhaps not to win, though. But to play a good game, yes, why not?"

Ah, so we'd just be making up the numbers - not embarrassing ourselves, but not challenging for the bling? Suddenly that £1.2m a year doesn't seem like such a snip.

Before I came out to Beijing, I put this to Peter Keen and Chelsea Warr of UK Sport, the body which funds Olympic sport in Britain.

It was Warr who dreamt up "Sporting Giants" - a call to long arms that has resulted in 50 athletes being added to Britain's handball, rowing and volleyball development squads - and she is in no doubt we can do more than give the established countries a game in London.

The "talent identification" expert pointed to the example of South Korea's rise in hockey in the run-up to the 1988 Games in Seoul as evidence it can and has been done.

The South Koreans transferred athletes from other sports into hockey, threw lots of money and good coaching at them and picked up a silver medal for their trouble.

Keen, UK Sport's elite performance boss, was also confident the handball effort was not a wasted one.

His support for the programme is essential as UK Sport may have some tough decisions to make post-Beijing.

As well as competing in every sport, Team GB has set itself the more challenging target of finishing fourth in the medal table in 2012.

Keen and his team put together a £600m plan over five years to achieve that goal. The problem is, the government is only providing £500m of that: UK Sport has to find the rest itself.

The early signs might be encouraging from Aarhus but they're not so hot on the fund-raising front. Hence, the sideways glances from other sports at handball and the other new kids on the block.

I think it would be a real shame to cut handball off at the knees now.

I really couldn't tell you if we have a snowball in hell's chance of winning anything in the sport in London or 2016 but I know for a fact it will be a surprise hit with the fans.

Fast breaks, "Hail Mary" passes, big units, lots of jumping around and crashing about, and goalkeepers expected to perform minor miracles every 30 seconds. What's not to like?

I'm coming out for handball. Can't help thinking I picked the wrong day to come and watch it, though.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


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