When Juan Antonio Samaranch uttered those famous words back in 1993 to confirm Sydney’s Olympic dreams were coming true, the reaction was pure euphoria.
But for those in charge of perhaps Australia’s most neglected sport, handball, the announcement carried a heavy sense of dread, too.
The Olympics were coming to town – and that meant they had to get good, fast, or risk embarrassing themselves and their country in front of the entire world.
What the Australian Handball Federation did next, with the backing of Olympic broadcasters Channel Seven, is a remarkable tale that’s never been fully told.
It’s a bit like Cool Runnings meets Dodgeball, but with footy players.
Before Sydney 2000, Australia’s national handball team had never gone close to reaching the Olympics. The sport’s entire participation base was about 500 people. Their world ranking was a similar number – most Australians thought handball was the game they played in the schoolyard with a tennis ball.
In Europe, however, it’s kind of a big deal. Handball is often played in front of sell-out crowds in countries like Spain, Germany and Denmark. Many of the world’s biggest soccer clubs – FC Barcelona, Paris-Saint Germain, Bayern Munich – have popular handball divisions.
It’s a game that, in theory, should suit Australians down to the ground. The most apt way to describe it is water polo on land. Each team has seven players, who throw a small ball around a 40m x 20m court with the aim of eventually getting it into the goal at the other end.
There’s hints of Aussie rules, the rugby codes, basketball, soccer, netball, cricket – just about every sport Aussies play.
“Australians are built excellent for this sport,” Nir Peled, the president of the AHF in the lead-up to Sydney 2000, told the Herald.
“The best handball players in the world are about 190cm-195cm, which is almost the average Australian when you look at all the football sports. But to convince them to come and play handball is almost impossible.”
And yet, the decision to bring the Olympics to Sydney meant the host nation would automatically qualify for every sport on the program. For handball, it was a blessing and a curse.
After Samaranch’s pronouncement handball was often mentioned, of all the Olympic sports, as the one in which a regular Joe could potentially make the Sydney Games.
At some point in late 1997, the AHF, the Australian Olympic Committee and Channel Seven began putting together a plan to avoid humiliation in Sydney. Seven would invest around $700,000 over a four-year period into handball – a cash-strapped, volunteer-run sport that desperately needed guidance.
In return, the AHF agreed to an experiment in which high-profile athletes from other sports would commit themselves to a rigorous training program to see if they could earn selection for Australia at Sydney 2000 – all of which would be filmed and turned into a reality TV-style show for Seven.
The idea was driven by Damian Keogh, a three-time Olympian basketball player for Australia who had recently retired from the NBL and was working as Seven’s head of Olympic marketing.
“You can imagine, Seven had some excitement about it – that whole concept of one of our great sportspeople from a non-Olympic sport getting a chance was a great angle,” Keogh said.
It wasn’t entirely unprecedented. The United States found themselves in a similar predicament to Australia at Atlanta 1996 – so almost their entire team for the Olympics had plucked from other sports a few years prior. Most were college basketballers; their goalkeeper had played professional indoor soccer for 10 years.
Australia’s women’s handball team also included an ex-basketballer in Sydney – Fiona Robinson, who won a bronze medal with the Opals at the 1996 Olympics but sensed she wouldn’t retain her spot at the next one, and switched sports.
But they had all spent several years learning the art of handball, training with local clubs and competing at major tournaments. Seven’s scheme would give battle-weary footy players barely a year and a half to prove they could cut it at the elite level in a sport they had no knowledge of.
The talent hunt was spearheaded by Keogh, who put the call out for any interested athletes with unfulfilled Olympic aspirations.
The two undisputed central figures in the experiment were Mark McGaw, the ex-NSW State of Origin and Australian rugby league winger, and Chris Langford, the four-time AFL premiership defender for Hawthorn.
McGaw played his last game in 1995 but had been keeping active in retirement, appearing as ‘Hammer’ on the TV show Gladiators – which meant he already had a working relationship with Seven.
“All I knew was that one day I got a phone call,” McGaw told the Herald and The Age.
“‘Sparkles, do you want to go to the Olympics for the handball’? I said, ‘What’s handball?’ He said, ‘Come down and have a train and we’re going to pick a couple of guys to join the team and go to the Olympics.’
“I said, ‘F—en sensational. Dual international.'”
Langford, who played 303 games for the Hawks, was an obvious candidate from AFL because he was already in Sydney. He moved there late in his career for work reasons and commuted to Melbourne for matches towards the end of his career. He retired at the end of 1997, aged 34 – so was still quite fit by the time his interest in handball was canvassed.
“They floated the idea and asked me. I said yeah,” Langford said. “But after a bit, I was thinking, how can these management people be driving Olympic selection? That didn’t ring true, really.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle of achievement – there are all these people who’ve been playing this game for years. Just because we’re bigger and maybe fitter, it doesn’t mean we necessarily know anything about how to play the sport.”
Establishing a full list of athletes who took part has proved difficult. Most people had only hazy recollections. Keogh was certain his former Sydney Kings teammate Tim Morrissey was involved in the experiment, which began with weekly training sessions at Sydney University.
Others recall seeing names like Andrew Ettingshausen, who was in the twilight of his NRL career with Canberra, future Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos, and another NBL veteran in Dean Uthoff. All were invited, but none are believed to have participated. One media report claimed the Olympic carrot had even been dangled in front of AFL legend Tony Lockett. McGaw swears there were a couple of water polo players, too.
What’s not in dispute is that McGaw and Langford stuck with it the longest and showed the most promise.
“Look, mate, it was easy,” McGaw said.
“The ability to throw a ball is the only technical side of it. I was always good at cricket … I had great hand-eye co-ordination and I just took to it. Most of the guys did, really – they’re professional athletes, whereas the guys playing handball just loved the game. You’re looking at a different mindset.
“Great game, don’t get me wrong. The technical aspect of the rules and all that, if someone was going to be selected, they would have had to really worked hard on because there’s a lot of rules and stuff. But jeez, it was fun.”
Not everyone was loving it, though. For Australia’s handball loyalists, the sport they had dedicated their lives to was at risk of becoming a joke.
Taip Ramadani, who had been part of the national set-up since the early 90s, said the AHF had initially kept the team in the dark about the Seven deal and what it entailed.
Upon returning from a trip to Europe early in 1998, they learned through newspaper articles that the federation had opened the Olympic door to retired athletes from other sports. Already threatened by an influx of accomplished handballers who had became naturalised Australians after the breakout of the Yugoslav Wars, they were now feeling selection pressure from multiple directions.
“It was all secretive – nobody really knew what was going on, no one had details. A lot of us were just speculating between one another and we were feeling the stress,” Ramadani said. “We heard there was a camp that had been set up for them and they’d been training secretly – we’d just heard rumours after rumours after rumours.
“We thought, ‘here we go, they’re going to ditch us now.'”
When the real handballers were finally introduced to the wannabes, there was palpable tension. But Peled, the AFH president, laid down the law to anyone in the squad who had misgivings – mindful of the dazzling possibilities on offer for handball if a former AFL or NRL player was to make it to Sydney 2000.
“In handball worldwide, in the high level, every team has got one or two defence specialists,” Peled said. “They could definitely fit into that. They were big enough, they were fit enough – they could fill that role excellent.
“I told the players, the best players available will play. Fight for your spot. It’s the same in any other sport.”
For a period between a few weeks and a couple of months – nobody is quite sure how long the project ran for – the retired footy players gave what they had to the cause.
“You could tell who the handballers were and who the old footballers or basketballers were,” Langford said.
“Having said that, we weren’t too shabby in terms of picking it up and showing good ball sense, team skills and a physical presence. It had a bit of promise to begin with. There was a plan that we’d get good, and then do a couple of tournaments overseas and travel a bit.”
It dawned on Ramadani after a scratch match at training one day that the incumbents in the Australian team were really under no threat at all.
“With all due respect, they were great athletes but handball has some really specific skills that take years to master. They lacked the basics,” he said.
“They were quite fit and physically strong – [Langford] was one of the better ones. Mark McGaw, when he hit me once, it was like a train running into you. I got hit really hard and I asked the coach, ‘do you mind if I get subbed out, I’m really not comfortable playing this game any more’, because it became like a circus, really.”
Eventually, the idea began to run out of steam for a number of reasons. Firstly, the idea of an ex-footy player being given a rails run to the Olympics never quite sat right with Keogh – especially if it came at the expense of a handball lifer. Players felt there was a clear conflict of interest at hand.
“They’d been training all their lives and someone was going to get picked to jump on the Olympic bandwagon and not have to do all the work they’d done,” McGaw said. “They were, as my son calls it, butthurt. I sat in on the meeting, because I was one of the ones who looked like was going to go, and they just had these issues.”
Secondly, there weren’t enough ex-athletes invested – and the ones who were weren’t invested enough.
“It just got to a point where they go, ‘OK, well here’s the program. Now you have to train, take time off work’, all that sort of stuff,” said Langford.
“It wasn’t like I was afraid of hard work but I’d just retired from 18 years of this. I had three young kids. I remember going to a couple of sessions at Sydney Uni, rocking up and I was asking myself, what the hell am I doing here?”
Keogh said it ultimately landed in the “too hard” basket.
“Chris and Sparkles had full-time jobs and other things, there was no money in it, they’re used to being professional sportspeople,” he said. “Seven, while they liked the idea, they weren’t going to spend a fortune on doing it. In some ways, it was probably appropriate because there were people who played the game seriously and had Olympic aspirations.”
Keogh did manage to leave one lasting legacy in handball, though – he helped arrange for Tom York, a long-serving basketball administrator who managed the Boomers at Atlanta 1996, to come in as the team’s Olympic manager and provide some elite expertise.
The first major task that fell to York, who came in just as the Seven experiment was winding to a close, was to chaperone the team on a tour of Hungary. Almost straight away he could see how much work needed to be done to bring them up to the required level.
“I arrived in Budapest and the next morning we’re having breakfast,” he said.
“The guys are eating salamis and cheeses and I’m thinking, ‘that’s not healthy. That’s not what players should be eating.’ So I complained about it and they changed the menu, gave us more fruit.
“They were playing in borrowed singlets from the soccer federation. When we came back to Australia, I bought them beautiful uniforms for training, in better colours, with better balls – made them feel like they’re special.
“I had to raise a lot of money to be able to give them proper training. I got a physio involved, a conditioner, and a psychologist because they were losing all the time. Little things like that. It paid off.”
In 1999, handball’s international governing body recognised that Australia needed more help and handed the men’s team a berth at the world titles in Egypt. They lost all five of their games, and then lost another three when they returned home for an Olympic test event, but the standard of their play was improving.
The Australian team, unsurprisingly, went winless in Sydney, losing to Sweden, Spain, Slovenia, Tunisia and France before falling just short, 26-24, in a gallant final stand against Cuba. Initially overwhelmed by what Ramadani described as the “grandeur” of the Games, Australia probably surpassed expectations.
“For us it was a fantastic experience,” said Ramadani, who is now the head coach of Kosovo. “We went from absolute nobodies, we were completely anonymous all the way leading up to the Olympic Games – and then suddenly we were thrown into the limelight.
“The one [thing] I remember really vividly is we started our first game against Sweden – packed crowd, atmosphere was intense. And the commentator asked the crowd if anyone had watched a handball game before.
“No one had. Only five per cent put their hands up.”
But by the end of the Games, handball had a legion of new fans. Tickets, at $19, were the cheapest of the Olympics. Those who took a punt were fascinated by the fast-paced, frenetic nature of the game. In schoolyards across the country, kids abandoned the traditional version of handball and tried out the one they saw on TV.
There was an explosion of interest at grassroots level post-Olympics – Ramadani recalls finding out more than 8000 phone calls were made to the AHF, but the federation did not have the infrastructure to cope with it.
To this day, handball remains the ultimate minnow sport in Australia. Neither the men nor women have qualified for the Olympics again.
“But from an achievement point of view this is a real, classic Olympic story,” York said.
“Players who have no money, no government support, who gave up a ridiculous amount of time to get themselves fit, prepare themselves, help me to fundraise … they sacrificed a lot. The guys were so grateful for everything we did for them. Not one player got a cent, let me assure you. They improved from being a nothing to a very competitive team.”
Seven’s idea might have changed the trajectory for the sport, ever so slightly. Looking back, Keogh says it’s a “tragedy” that it wasn’t seen all the way through, and Peled agrees.
“Other countries did it – if they were there with their full hearts they could definitely make it,” he said. “It’s a good sport, but rugby in Australia is too strong. Unfortunately it’s very hard to introduce a new sport to Australia because the rugby codes are stopping everyone. It was terrific help from Channel Seven to give us quite a lot of money. It’s a shame they didn’t keep giving us a little bit more.”
As for McGaw, perhaps unsurprisingly, he still reckons he could have made it to the Olympics.
“I saw Damian walking past one day, many months later,” he said. “I said ‘what happened?’ He said, ‘it just fell over – they’re too hard to deal with’ or something.
“What they didn’t realise was the amount of publicity they would have got out of it, to enhance the game and their enrolment rate. The whole idea was to give handball a leg-up with getting people in the juniors and growing it.
“There’s so much the professional athletes could have brought. It was exciting, it was fun … but they lost an opportunity. They f—-ed it up.”
Read the Best Games Ever series.