Netball benched for London 2012: Where does the sport go from here?

By Leonora Houston

Exclusion of netball from the Summer Olympics has rattled Manchester.

Behind the scenes, netball fanatics who work for free and volunteer at school, club and national level are finally speaking out on why netball cannot be played as an Olympic sport.

With Manchester’s Fiat Netball Superleague team, Northern Thunder, winning their opening seven matches in the first phase and topping the table, support for netball across the region couldn’t be greater. However this support is not resonating on an international level.

According to The International Federation of Netball Associations (IFNA) over 20million people play netball around the world in more than 80 countries. In 1995 it became an Olympic recognised sport. Yet it has never been played in the international event.

Northern Thunder’s Performance Analyst, Dave Smyth said this is because of the many barriers netball faces. He added: “I don’t think it’s recognised for what it is. The Olympics is based around amateur sports and frankly it doesn’t get more amateur then netball. No one sees the background element or the amount of effort put in. No one is paid they do it for the love of the sport.”

However Team Northumbria’s Performance Analyst, Phil Dicks believes netball is not ready to become an Olympic played sport.

“Netball is not played in enough nations. It only sits well with the Commonwealth countries because of the volume of enthusiasm in these places,” he said.

Netball has been a fixture of the Commonwealth Games since 1998 with Australia and New Zealand winning two golds and two silvers each and England wining three bronzes. The sport is becoming increasingly popular at the games with 12 teams competing in 2010.

However Non-Commonwealth countries with full IFNA membership like Argentina, Switzerland and the United States don’t have such a popular international stage to generate the sport.

England Netball Activator Sheonah Forbes has helped 297 women get back in to playing the sport across Manchester since April. She believes that with teams like the US not being part of the Commonwealth, England may not get a chance to play them.

She also said: “America has just a got a new US body. I can imagine such a power house from the US is going to hit us in the next five years but we’ll probably never play them because they’re not in the Commonwealth.”

Other international competitions include the World Netball Championships held every four years and the World Netball Series held annually in England against the six top national teams. But with only the major teams making the top flight and being able to fund allowances, nations like Pakistan and India lose out.

Pakistan’s Netball federation Secretary, Mudassar Arain revealed that in the last five years only a meagre investment of 4.5 million Rupees was made to develop the sport.

A planned visit by India in April for a five-match series and the Asian Netball Championship in August are the main events for Pakistan this year. None of which England Netball are competing in.

Former North West Regional Manager, Kathryn Pemberton believes more European teams need to play netball to secure Olympic inclusion but the cost of putting a team together can be hard for undeveloped countries.

Even the long awaited London 2012 Olympics will not clinch the support netball needs. Mrs Pemberton added: “if the Olympics were going to do that it would have happened in Australia when they were being played in Sydney.”

Yet the people behind the scenes do believe in the sports’ development. With Sky showing Superleague matches live, Northern Thunder is gaining support. Sheonah Forbes said the team are getting more news coverage and are constantly in the public eye through Twitter and Facebook.

Mr Dicks agreed and said: “Sky gives netball more visibility and press. Teams are coming up now and Fast Net is starting to put netball in a new dimension making it more popular.”

England Netball’s 10.1.1. vision focuses on three goals: To establish netball as a top ten participation sport in England. To make it the number one sporting choice for women in England and to achieve number one world ranking status.

This could be easily achievable if netball was part of the Summer Olympics along with other fledgling sports like Women’s Boxing and cycling. Instead teams like Northern Thunder must power on whilst netball continue to fight for inclusion.

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