Korfball at the World Games

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Many moons ago a friend dragged me along to a small sports hall in Edinburgh to try out Korfball. I had few expectations—do some exercise, make some friends—and certainly no idea that one day Korfball would see me crossing the globe to take part in one of the world’s biggest sporting events. The World Games is a sister event to the Olympic Games; an international multi-sport event, held every four years and featuring over thirty sports—from household names like Squash, Karate, Orienteering, Sumo, and Ju-Jitsu , through to less well known sports like Ultimate Frisbee, Canoe Polo, and Powerlifting.

Korfball has been part of the World Games since 1985 and the top eight countries in the world are invited to compete for the coveted Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals over five days of intense competition. The World Games is a real showcase for Korfball and the IKF were determined to put on a show at the 2013 event in Cali, Colombia. Little did we know that things would go so well that at the end of the competition the World Games President Ron Froehlich would describe korfball as “the best organised discipline at the Games” in a press conference!

I was honoured to be invited to this years event to serve as a jury member throughout the tournament. The jury are responsible for all of the official administration surrounding a tournament—they control the shotclock and timeclock, register and record the official match statistics, handle requests for substitutions and timeouts, and together with the tournament referees ensure that each match (and the tournament!) is kept under control. Sounds straightforward, but it can get a little hectic at the desk when there are three goals, two substitutions, and an overly specific timeout request (“I want a timeout when there is a goal, but only if we score…”) all in the space of a minute! There were six jury members all in, with three of us on duty for each match. We were aided by a number of brilliant local volunteers—clock operators, stadium announcers, ballboys—and a team from Swiss Timing, Tissot. Thanks guys—it was a pleasure!

Day One in Cali saw the newly arrived officials visit the custom built (!!) korfball venue to see where we would be spending the next week and work out where everything was. We were greeted by some of the (many) local volunteers and were immediately struck by just how helpful, friendly, and enthusiastic they were. IKF have been working with locals in Cali for several years now, with coaching courses, equipment and expertise being provided to help kickstart Colombian korfball ahead of the World Games and the Pan-American championships in 2014.

The hall itself looked fantastic, with only two walls (as is typical in Colombia) there was a nice gentle breeze to help keep the temperature down to something more manageable than the 30-odd degrees outside! Two of the teams had agreed to play a short practice match so that we could test all of the equipment, which is just as well because we had more than a few gremlins to sort out… A few hours later, though, with the help of our lovely (and hard working!) volunteers and the local organising committee everything was ready for the first day of competition.

The World Games Korfball tournament is structured as two pools of four and then cross finals. Excitement in the hall for the first round of matches was increased when the President of Colombia arrived to meet some players and try out korfball! This got us some great publicity, with multiple film crews, photographers, and journalists in attendance the next day Korfball was plastered all over the Colombian media. The Dutch, Belgians, and Chinese Taipei started with easy wins before Great Britain took to the field for their first match, against the Czech Republic. The GB side had some strong Scottish connections, with ex-St Andrews player Andrew Hall and Hannah Lorrimer—sister of Scotland coach Beth Lorrimer—both in the squad.

GB started strongly and looked to be cruising to victory but an incredible comeback from the Czech team saw them score three goals in the last minute and win the match 17-18 with only a few seconds to play. Gutting for the GB players but the large crowd of Colombians in the hall went absolutely wild, and unsurprisingly so did the Czechs. Everyone from IKF was struck by just how much noise the crowd had made—really getting behind the Germans and Portugese in their matches (“POR-TU-GAL! POR-TU-GAL!”) and nearly taking the roof off for the Czech winner. A great end to the day for the neutral supporter.

With the first day having gone smoothly we were able to take some time out to visit some other sports before the second round of matches. I was fortunate enough to witness Colombian women taking Gold and Silver in the (very noisy) final of the Speed Skating (“COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!”) before taking in some 10-pin bowling. As we travelled around Cali it became clear that the local people were really embracing the Games—everywhere you looked there were smiling volunteers, noisy, appreciative crowds, autograph hunters, and everywhere the athletes (and even officials) went we were asked to pose for photos. It was really fantastic to see athletes from smaller sports being treated with such enthusiasm and respect. One evening our hotel bar broke into spontaneous cheers as we got off our bus!

The second round of matches saw Andrew Hall score six goals against the Dutch for GB (admittedly, the Dutch scored one or two in reply), Portugal beat the Czech Republic, and Germany get one over on the Russians. Match of the day, however, was the clash between Belgium and Chinese Taipei. In recent years Taipei are the only team to have got close to threatening the dominance of the big two, and having recently drawn with Belgium in a training match there were high hopes they could cause an upset. The first half was a terrific advert for Korfball, with both teams trading goals and a large crowd urging both teams on. As the horn went at the end of the first half Ricky Wu from Taipei scored a buzzer beater from right in the corner (16.5 metres, maths fans) that had the crowd off their feet and only one goal in it at half time, 10-11. In the second half, however, Belgium stepped up a gear and ran out winners, 21-26.

Day three of the competition and some of the officials made another whistle-stop tour, taking in women’s Beach Handball, Wushu, Canoe Polo, and Rugby Sevens before heading back to the hall for the final round of matches. The closest match of the day was the vital clash between Portugal and GB. A win for Portugal would put them in the semi-final along with Netherlands, Belgium, and Taipei whilst a win by two goals or more for the Brits would see them progress at the expense of the Portugese. Another close match, watched by the British Consul (who came two days in a row to support the team!) but the Portugese were in top shooting form and the match finished 17-20 in their favour.

Throughout the week the crowd had been getting bigger and for the final two days of the competition the stadium was completely sold out. Before and after matches teams were posing for photos, giving out souvenirs to the crowd, high fiving supporters during warmups, local press were interviewing officials and players, and the noise level during the matches was increasing every day. The semi-finals held few surprises, and the bottom half of the draw provided the closest games, with GB scoring the winner against the Germans with only a few seconds to play. Needless to say the crowd showed their appreciation, as you can see in the video here.

The final day of competition had arrived, and the first match was an absolute cracker, with the Czechs beating the Germans by a solitary goal, again scored in the last minute. GB saved their best performance for last and beat Russia to finish the tournament in fifth place. Portugal-Taipei was closer than expected, with Portugal (aided by a very noisy crowd) coming back from 4-10 to 10-10 during a sixteen minute spell where Taipei seemingly forgot how to score. As jury chair for the match I was beginning to prepare myself for golden goal but an inspired substitution from Taipei turned things back in their favour and they won the match, along with a bronze medal.

And so, the final, and a strong British representation…at least amongst the officials, with myself and Steve Wright (ENG) on the jury alongside Nina Piris (CAT) and Steve Jones (WAL) as reserve referee. Both the Netherlands and Belgium had won themselves many supporters over the week and as the match started in typically robust style the crowd were clearing loving every minute. The match was one of the closest clashes between these two sides in recent years and I for one was glad I was on the jury table and not refereeing, with both teams determined to push everything right to the limit. Eventually the Dutch found their rhythm and opened up a gap that was too big for the Belgians to close: Gold for Netherlands, Silver for the Belgians. Cue the celebrations amongst the orange half of the hall.

That evening, all of the athletes, officials, and volunteers were invited to the official closing ceremony, which, to be honest, I’m not sure I have the words to describe. The stadium—at least 60,000 seats—was packed to the rafters, and as we walked around the athletics track the noise the crowd made was unbelievable: cheering, chanting, waving flags, singing, you name it. The athletes, from all disciplines, were treated like superstars one last time. There was a real party atmosphere, with spontaneous dancing breaking out everywhere you looked, greatly aided by the live music of Carlos Vives—triple platinum selling, grammy award winning Colombian superstar—plus band. I’m not sure anyone who was there that night will forget it.

During an interview I heard IKF president Jan Fransoo tell Colombian radio that “Korfball is here to stay”. Before the tournament I wouldn’t have believed that possible—but having seen the enthusiasm of the local volunteers, heard the cheers and chants from the sellout crowds, and the connections built up between established European teams and our new found Colombian friends I really do think Jan was right.¬†Gracias Cali, y vamos Colombia!

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