Wheelchair handball in the spotlight at EURO Hand 4 All
This might have gone slightly under the radar, but not for all of us. At the end of June, in France, one of the most rousing successes in handball took place in Ecully, North West of Lyon, the third biggest town in France.
In a tournament organised by a team of passionate volunteers, six national teams played against each other at the EURO Hand 4 All, a tournament of wheelchair handball.
Dominique Rives, one of the main men behind its creation, talks through the process: “It all started a couple of years ago. Tony Gomez, president of the Lyon Metropole wheelchair Handball, had been playing wheelchair handball for some years, and we, at the club of UODL Handball, have been organising French wheelchair handball tournaments for some years. Collectively, we had this idea of setting up a tournament, where a French selection could play against some of the best teams in Europe. All the UODL handball management team, referees and volunteers lined up to support the efforts.”
With sponsors and partners quickly following up the process, the tournament was built and a first edition was played in July 2022. Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and a selection of the best French players faced each other across two days, in conditions that were quite similar to those lived by professional handball players.
“Guillaume Joli, a former French national team player, started playing handball at the UODl handball. We called him and asked him what it was like to play an EHF EURO or a World Championship with France. He told us us the players could focus only on handball since everything else was taken care of, and so we aimed for exactly that at EURO Hand 4 All,” explains Rives.
The first edition was such a success that, soon, many other national teams asked if they could get a ticket for the 2023 edition of the tournament. And so, Norway and Croatia got theirs and travelled to the centre of France a couple of weeks ago.
This time, the French handball federation took a major interest and, in the wake of the tournament, the creation of the first French national handball team in wheelchair handball was announced.
“The whole business is a lot of pride for us. We wanted to organise the event the best we could, create a unique player experience. Prompted by our sponsors, we had a plan to ramp up the event over three years so we can culminate in 2024 right before the Paris 2024 Paralympics. It has already exceeded our expectations,” says Dominique Rives, now a retired player.
What could the limits be for the tournament and, by extension, for wheelchair handball itself?
“We can feel that things are now changing,” he says. “We know handball is not going to be part of the Paralympic Games in 2028 so we hope for 2032, so that could give us everyone a boost. We all would want things to move faster, especially in terms of visibility, but at least things are going in the right direction.”
Wheelchair handball, though, has everything to appeal, as it is in fact quite similar to handball; the main difference being that it is played by both men and women at the same time and by people of all ages. One could say that it is the perfect example of an inclusive sport.
And to make it even more inclusive, the EURO Hand 4 All organising team decided to invite children from the nearby cities during the first day of the tournament this year.
“In May we organised fun sessions for schoolchildren with stands where they could, for example, play blind football or play wheelchair handball. We then wanted them to see real, competitive wheelchair handball games on the first day of the tournament and the atmosphere was amazing,” relates Dominique Rives, who wants to insist on one thing: “The tournament is not a one-off, not something that is coming out of the blue. We wanted it to be included in a much wider vision of disability sports.”
The question now is, what is the future of the tournament, and of wheelchair handball in general?
“There have been talks of making it even bigger, as once people see it, they love it. And foreign teams want to come. We’ll give ourselves a break during the summer before thinking about it.”