Britain hopes "Sporting Giants" reach handball heights
LONDON (Reuters) - When Britain's male handball team faces France on Sunday, four of them will be competing in a sport that they had never heard of back in 2005 when London was announced as the city that would host the 2012 Olympics.
The athletes were recruited, alongside eight other 2012 British Olympians, via a "Sporting Giants" program designed to attract unusually tall people to handball, rowing and volleyball.
"If we profile elite athletes in these sports there's lot of things that they possess but one of many is height," said Chelsea Warr, head of athlete development at UK Sport, a public funded body that invests in high performance sport.
"And so we went about asking these sports to work together with us to try and identify talent, looking at height as the first round filter."
Tall people have bigger muscles, which allow them to power along easier on the court or through the water.
The same advantage benefits swimmers - U.S. multi-gold medal winner Michael Phelps is 1.93 meters, or 6 ft 4 - although the extra weight that usually comes with height can hinder sports such as long-distance running.
Over 2,000 men at least 1.90 m tall and 500 women at least 1.80 m applied to the program, which was set up in 2007, and nine of these will be competing for Britain over the next two weeks - six of them in handball.
The women's handball team, which features two "Sporting Giants", kick off their Olympic campaign against Montenegro on Saturday.
Two of Britain's Olympic rowers - ex-hockey player Helen Glover and ex-showjumper Vicky Thornley - were also recruited via the program, while Richard Jeffries was directed into canoeing.
Most of the "Sporting Giants", such as men's handball captain and goalkeeper Bobby White, had some sporting background but had never played their new sport before joining up.
"They didn't have to have played the sport before," Warr said. "In fact, we were quite interested if they hadn't."
UK Sport has formed part of Britain's largely successful attempt to recoup some of the ground it lost in terms of Olympic success in the 20th century. While Britain topped the table back in 1908, when London first hosted the Olympics, it had dropped to 36th by Atlanta 1996, with only one gold.
Now expectations in the host nation are high that it will at least equal its fourth place in Beijing.
Other campaigns UK Sports has been running include recruiting more women in certain sports and more paralympians in general, switching martial arts practitioners into taekwondo, and finding soccer players who were not quite good enough to go professional but could shine in another sport.
Developing talent has become smarter and more evidence-based over the past two Olympic cycles, Warr said.
"The true test of our development program we will see in 2016 and 2020, and our ability to maintain a position on the medal table," she said.
"It's exciting, really. The wheel's only just starting to move."
(Editing by Alison Williams)
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