Wednesday, 30 November 2011

London Prepares Series - Handball cup

Handball action!
It's an exciting time for East London as preparations for the London 2012 Olympics get into full swing. The shiny new Westfield shopping centre is already open and already packed full to the brim with frantic shoppers seven days a week. High-rise apartment blocks are springing up all over Stratford, and the new transport links are starting to take shape. As for the Olympic park itself, the progress on the various sporting arenas has been obvious every time I drive down the A12, and construction seems to be remarkably on schedule according to the official reports!  The main stadium was completed on time and under budget in March, with work on the other arenas being finished throughout the year. Throughout the winter and next spring, the arenas are being opened up for various test events as part of the London Prepares series, and as a resident of Waltham forest, we were lucky enough to get 4 free tickets for the Handball cup which took place this weekend! Now I don't know too much about handball as it isn't a massively popular sport here in the UK, in fact in 2007 we barely had a national team and had to recruit a load of athletes from other sports and send them on an intensive handball training programme in Denmark. The scheme seems to have been successful as both the GB men's and women's teams have earned the right to compete in London 2012. (We are offered places automatically as the host nation, but can be prevented from taking part if the teams are not competitive enough). I have tickets to the Olympic men's handball quarter-final next year, so now seemed like as good a time as any to figure out what the sport was all about, and a good excuse to get inside the Olympic park for the first time.
The Olympic handball arena
As well as testing out the handball arena, the London prepares series is being used to train some of the many thousands of staff that will be needed next year. When we arrived on Saturday, we had to go through airport-style security screening, where our bags were scanned and we had to empty our pocket contents into little plastic bags. The staff were all very chirpy and happy, and hopefully these test runs will help them iron out any issues before they have to deal with the massive crowds flooding in next summer. We walked past the aquatics centre and over the huge sweeping bridge past the impressive main stadium towards the handball arena. Even the normally green dingy canals had been totally cleaned out and looked sparklingly clear. The park itself is still a bit of a building site for now, but as soon as the grass and plants are in I can imagine it being quite something. The handball arena is one of the smaller looking venues, a compact black cube of a building with a capacity of around 7,000. Inside, brightly multicoloured seats are packed in over two floors, ensuring everyone is close to the action. The handball floor can be easily taken up to allow the floor to be used for other sports like badminton or basketball. 
We were there to watch the two semi-final games of the women's handball cup, featuring Angola v Poland and Austria v China. Team GB sadly hadn't made it to the semi-finals, missing out only by goal difference from the earlier group qualifying stage. For my first experience of handball, the games were really exciting! Loads of end-to-end fast paced action, plenty of goals, and we even had a handy little leaflet to explain the rules (kind of a cross between basketball and 5-a-side football!). I don't even remember who won the competition - for me the day was much more about getting a taste of the Olympic experience, and I cant wait for next year!
Tickets are still available for other London Prepares events on the Ticketmaster website here: London Prepares series tickets. I managed to get myself some more tickets for February to watch Tom Daly in action at the diving World cup!

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