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Getting everybody into the game - a sport invented by danes

One Olympic gold medal, one World Championship gold medal, two World Championship silver medals, two World Championship bronze medals, three European Championship gold medals and one European Championship bronze medal.

By Tina Ravn. Focus Denmark no. 4 2012

Ulrik Wilbek’s achievements are so many that the medals are too heavy to carry all at the same time. As the national coach of first the women’s team and now the men’s team, he has gone from one success to the next, and the small man with the red cheeks and the fiery-tempered appearance during matches, has become a national treasure.

“Being the national coach is not a job to me. Even if I won 100 million kroner, I would still do the same thing. It suits my needs to work with team sports,” he says.

He puts his success down to his interest in people.

"It is always difficult to give an answer when it concerns oneself."

But I think it is because I am good at finding the players’ talents and exploiting them. I like getting the best out of people,” he says.

“Hi Ulrik!” It is not often that Ulrik Wilbek can walk unnoticed down a street. But that is understandable when you have brought home several international Championships to the handball-loving Danes.

Empathy can be a weakness

Ulrik Wilbek is fascinated by what makes people behave as they do. Together with an interest in personal profiles, this helps him to find each player’s core competences and discover the best way in which the team can benefit from them. This results in a Danish team which does not field the same seven players throughout a match. Instead most of the squad are in action during the matches – all depending on what the situation requires.

”I use all my players,” he says.

Empathy with other people is however not unconditionally positive.

“It can be a weakness. In the past I had real difficulty taking someone off the team – for example to inform a player that the person in question was not going to the Olympic Games,” he says.

The Danes’ relationship to Ulrik Wilbek is on the other hand positive. In the Danish provincial town of Viborg where Ulrik Wilbek lives – and where there are more sports halls than in the capital Copenhagen – the local citizens are used to seeing him. But when he is in the capital, he attracts attention.

“Everybody greets me and says ´Hi Ulrik´, and there are also many who come over and give me their hand and say: “Thank you for all the good experiences over the years’. That is nice,” he says.


Success created in the provinces

In recent decades in Denmark, both the men’s and women’s national handball teams have been very successful and have won a large number of medals.

Behind the achievement are hundreds of small local handball clubs nationwide, many of which are located in Denmark’s western peninsula, Jutland. Clubs based in small towns in the country’s provinces have quite unusually in many cases achieved better results than clubs in for example Copenhagen.

There are several reasons for this, one being the presence of a large number of passionate locals who enable the small clubs to survive through support funding and voluntary work. In addition, life in small towns has for many years been concentrated around the local sports hall. As part of political structural reform in the 1970s, small municipalities were merged into larger units. As a result, many villages built a landmark to differentiate themselves from the others in the new larger municipalities. Many of these landmarks were sports halls where young people had the chance to exercise their talent.

“As long as there is a boy in a Jutland sports hall practising swerve balls, Danish handball is alive and well,” says Thomas Ladegaard

When Karin Mortensen started playing in her childhood club, she didn’t imagine that handball would fill most of her life. Nonetheless she has since then spent countless hours practising and travelling by bus to matches. In addition to her amazing Olympic gold medal from 2004 – which lies in a cupboard in her living room – she has won another Olympic gold medal, a European Championship gold medal, gold in an international club tournament and several Danish Championships.

“And two 4th places at the World Championships,” she says with a vexed smile.

The next target is the Olympic Games in London in 2012, but after that she does not know what will happen. Even after many years, the daily practice with her club team is still a high point.

“I like being around people. You get exercise, talk about the world situation and get cheerful. The atmosphere of the team I am playing with will probably also have great importance for when I end my career,” she says and continues:

“If the teamwork is not good, it is nothing like as much fun."


Handball was invented in Denmark at the turn of the last century

The game is played on a 20x40 metre court with a goal at each end. The teams consist of seven players – one goalkeeper and six field players – who dribble and throw the ball to each other and try to get past the opposing team’s defence. After receiving the ball, players can take up to three steps without dribbling. Handball is a contact sport, but if tackling is too violent, the referee can give a suspension to the player, or a penalty throw, or both.

A handball match lasts 60 minutes, and it is not uncommon for each team to score more than 30 goals before the final whistle in 2011, the number of handball players in Denmark is 119,000 – 58,000 male and 61,000 female Denmark has won 74 sets of medals at the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships. The Danish women’s handball team won gold at the Olympic Games three times in succession in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Most recently, the Danish men’s handball team won silver at the 2011 World Championships.