The news that Oh Jin Hyek is not just back on the Korean team, but back in an Olympic team, is all-round fantastic.
Not just because a former Olympic champion still has what it takes to make a Games, nine years on from London 2012. It’s less surprising in pro archery generally, where careers are longer. But in Korea you invariably have to fight for that place against multiple world champions; young, hungry, experienced internationals, and that uniquely local product: high-school kids who can shoot you off the park before they even have to shave every day. It’s always a much bigger ask.
It’s a much-quoted cliche (which this writer has been thoroughly guilty of deploying) but the Korean trials are the most difficult recurve tournament(s) in the world. To make the Olympic team, you have to shoot lights out, every single day, over five separate gruelling weeks. Jin Hyek has remained consistently near the top of the standings almost every single day he has been out there. He didn’t sneak in. He didn’t edge it. There have been no doubts about the quality of his performance.
But Oh has found the motivation to push himself through the interminable trials process in the face of excruciating shoulder pain which would have caused lesser men to retire and enjoy their individual Olympic gold (and team bronze). According to him, all four of his rotator cuff muscles are trashed. He was intending to retire in 2020 anyway, so the story goes. One more bite at the cherry. One more go-around.
It’s not so well known, when he wasn’t quite at the international forefront in the mid-2010s, that he almost made the Rio team as well. As quoted in Bow International in 2017:
“During last year’s national team selections [for the Olympics], I just needed an 8 to win the match and make the team. I ended up shooting a 7 and we ended up going to a shoot-off, which I lost in the end. It was terrible, the biggest regret of my life. I was furious. I decided to change my arrow nock and vane colours that I had used from the start and changed some of my equipment setup. I wanted to throw away everything I’d had previously and start again. “
Behind the big grin, a hint at the vicious competitive streak, just like his fellow London 2012 winner – and former romantic partner – Ki Bo Bae. The sense of unfinished business. (He’s been individual second twice in the World Championships, in 2011 and 2013, and has mentioned it more than once.)
He wasn’t always the gritty archery super-heavyweight we know him as, of course. Once upon a time:
“When I was younger, I did archery because it was fun and I just enjoyed shooting. I didn’t have any ambitions. In high school, at a certain point in time, as I began shooting a bit better and won a few medals at national competitions, I started to become a bit more ambitious. I wonder if I would have done better if I had had those ambitions when I was younger. I liked playing with my friends too much when I was younger and if I had done that a little less I wonder if I could have done just a bit better.”
So not one of those hyper-focused athletes then, for whom gold medals are the mere byproduct of executing a perfect plan and a perfect program. The normal guy. Maybe.
But easily the most significant piece of awesome with Oh is his age; he is 39 years old. When he competes in Tokyo, he will be just a couple of weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
The Korean men’s team will be going in as favourites, even if nothing is guaranteed and plenty of teams might upset the apple cart. If he managed to take another gold medal, it would make him the oldest male archery gold medallist in the modern Olympic era, and the oldest medallist since the remarkable achievement of Hiroshi Yamamoto in 2004. (He would not be the oldest of all: Doreen Wilbur was 42 when she won gold in 1972, and Hubert van Innis was 54 when he won an avalanche of medals in Antwerp in 1920).
But just as the victory of Chang Hyejin in Rio destroyed received wisdoms about height and poundage, the career of Oh Jin Hyek has proved that unconventional form and age are no boundaries to the biggest prizes of all.
Ultimately we love Oh because we can project ourselves onto him. An athlete nearing 40 who doesn’t look much like an ‘athlete’. A family man. A fan of chunky gold. (The sort of chunky gold that makes me wonder what he drives.) A man who shoots compound like… this. A man who, shortly after making this year’s Olympic team, for the last time, at the highest level of ability, posted a pic on Instagram of his(?) fridge, packed full of his favourite neatly arranged beer.
I enjoyed the positive book review from Bow International magazine for Johannes Haubner’s The Power Of The Bow, available from Verlag Angelika Hörnig (their website is at bogenschiessen.de). By far the most striking passage in the review is the quote about yaba onna, or ‘archery range women’, who worked an entertainment known as a yōkyū.
One of the most interesting titbits concerns archery in the entertainment districts beginning during the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), where archery grounds were often found near to temples and shrines. Women known as yaba onna (lit. ‘archery range women’) called over passers-by to try their luck, using short indoor bows known as ko-yumi, rather like you might get at a fairground today.
Small prizes were on offer. You could just enjoy a cup of tea while watching the ladies and their shooting skills, but frequently, the women offered something else apart from just a have-a-go. As the book wryly notes: “This is why the expression ‘to shoot an arrow’ is quite ambiguous in 19th century Japan.”
The woodcut above, from the Sabaku Ink page, give visual clues as to the true role of a yaba onna, with dishevelled clothing and sash, a sword on the floor hinting at the prescence of a client, and the metaphor of a large bunch of ‘spent arrows’.
The historical website Sengo Kujidai takes up the story. It turns out the yaba onna persisted well into the 19th century: “In the early part of the Meiji period, a yōkyū site was established at Okuyama in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. This location employed attractive ladies to pick-up the arrows, garnering attention among the men. The women were assigned to gather the arrows, but also taught how to use the bows by standing in close proximity to the guests, showed their legs while retrieving arrows, and enticed customers. In jest, some of the guests shot arrows at the rears of women who were picking-up arrows, and those women humored them by skillfully evading the arrows. Prostitution services occurred behind the facility…”
The illustration above shows the tiny targets used, which were incorporated into what were essentially business cards, one of which appears in the book. It’s a little more explicit than the ones above. You can see it by clicking here.
Fashions changed, however, and less-expensive drinking establishments offering similar services led to fewer guests, and yōkyū as a form of entertainment declined precipitously. In 1877 the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department issued a regulation to control one prominent store in order to ‘prevent the tendency of worsening morals’.
People once spoke of a forty year Olympic curse. In 1940 Japan was due to host the Summer and Winter Games in Tokyo and Sapporo respectively; both were cancelled due to World War Two. In 1980, the Moscow Games were hit with mass boycotts due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over 66 countries refused to attend, including the USA and China.
In 2020… well, I’m sure you’re fully aware of what has happened in 2020 so far. The entire Western world has been completely upended and no one is yet sure of anything much at this writing. In early April, the Tokyo Games were suspended for almost exactly a year, the first time in history an Olympic competition has ever not started on time. Everyone involved, from the IOC to the Japanese government to the organising committee to the sport federations is currently 100% on message and behind the Games starting as re-planned in July 2021.
As many people have noted, it’s not entirely as simple as that. Some have suggested that without a widely available vaccine, the Games will simply have to be cancelled – it would be impossible to gather that many people from all over the world safely. While it’s likely that many of the athletes would be willing to take that chance, and national Olympic committees would be sure to test anyone going – the spectators are a different matter entirely.
It seems to have been made abundantly clear that it is ‘2021 or bust’, there will be no further delay. Indeed, the current plan seems to be ‘we’re doing it, corona or no corona’, with a notably more bullish tone in recent weeks.
Cancelling the Games still seems almost unthinkable – although postponing them seemed almost equally unthinkable just a few months ago. The immense sunk costs – $25 billion or more, by some estimates – without any revenue returning would cripple the Japanese economy further, and would be a catastrophic loss of face for the country. The Summer Olympics is also the financial engine that keeps tens of thousands of people employed worldwide, and funds most of the operations of the international federations (such as World Archery) too. The Winter Olympics, now following the Summer Games by just six months, might go too.
Some have again suggested that the Games will be held behind closed doors, which would allow the crucial TV coverage to continue. European football matches are currently being held and televised with added crowd noise, it’s not impossible we could see the same next year too.
For all the talk about the essential Games atmosphere, it should be remembered that 99.5% of the Olympic audience will only ever see an Olympic event on television in their lifetime, and many aspects of the Games are now ultimately subordinate to the demands of television, because of the revenue it generates.
Or perhaps the doors will be ‘semi-closed’; restricted to Tokyo citizens only to reduce travel, or only spectators that can prove they are coronavirus-free – or both.
There may be further knock-on effects too, related to the mass postponement of major events this year to a crammed-busy 2021. Some have suggested that Paris 2024 might be delayed a year too. As now seems usual in the age of coronavirus: change is the only thing that seems certain.
Many archery Olympians – or due-to-be Olympians – have welcomed the year’s delay. For some former medallists, such as Lisa Unruh and Michele Frangilli, who are both recovering from shoulder surgery, the postponement gives them another chance of an Olympic cap which would otherwise be in doubt. For the major national sides such as France and Turkey who are still without an Olympic spot, it may test the coaching and psychology setups to the limit.
Many national teams have completely restarted their selection procedures for 2021, including Korea, the biggest national fish of all – which means that former champions Ki Bo Bae and Chang Hye Jin, both of whom had fallen out of the process last year, might just be able to make another Games, and who knows, maybe even medal.
Some teams in well-isolated facilities have managed to continue shooting and training throughout the pandemic; while others have had to work at home. One thing is certain, with no more international outdoor competition this year, and the indoor calendar in serious doubt too, it will be whoever keeps their head and stays coolest that will thrive when the build-up competitions and qualifiers restart next year.
USA Olympian Mackenzie Brown was clear about what lay in front of her. “I am completely behind this decision to postpone the Games. I believe to be in line with the Olympic spirit. We are in crazy times right now and it’s difficult to keep very optimistic, but I’ve been training for four years for my dreams and I will continue to train and be ready at any moment to put on my best performance. It’s hard to wait for the next competition, but it’s what I was born to do, in my opinion, and I will continue to push on.”
As for what will happen next year: Korea still remain favourites, probably, for all five gold medals available, although the results over the last year or two give ever more pause for thought as to the possibilities. The Taipei challenge is ever stronger, but we all said that last time around. But you feel the women’s team victory at the World Championships has wedged open a door, psychologically at least. The team events will likely be won, or lost, inside someone’s head.
It would be great for the sport to see a less-fancied but dangerous archery nation – am thinking Kazakhstan, Indonesia, or Vietnam – push through and make a podium. It also seems like there will be a lot of veterans out representing next year; it would also be fantastic to see an older archer find the sixth gear and take a prize.
The last Summer Games to be held, despite much doomsaying and a handful of hair-raising incidents, in the end went off almost without a hitch. However it was held in an atmosphere of empty stadiums amid a populace who almost (but not quite) seemed to turn their backs on the competition. Rio was a city mired with debt problems and inequality, and in a country going through political turmoil and a murderous recession – and the Olympic movement isn’t really part of the collective consciousness in Brazil. (Interestingly, the Paralympics in Rio were far better attended than the Olympics; a combination of dirt-cheap tickets and increasing familiarity saw both weekends in the main Olympic Park sell out).
Few host cities on Earth could have lived up to 2012. London sold out almost every ticket across the Games, which no Olympics has ever got close to before, and may never again. In Rio, the threat of Zika and crime scared off more casual tourists, whatever the milder reality might have been. When even the athletics session for Usain Bolt running the 100m, an event watched by a total of two billion people in 2012, failed to sell out on the ground, you know something is very wrong. Selling tickets won’t, at least, be a problem in Olympics-mad Japan next year.
When Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, on a grand scale it seemed like a genuinely brilliant idea. The economy was going through the roof. Oil was at record highs. It fit past Olympic narratives of a national power thrusting fully into the world after a long period in the wilderness; Tokyo 1964, a modern industrial nation emerging from losing a war, and similar tales at Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992. Everybody wanted it to work. Brazil, with all its extraordinary natural advantages and increasing financial clout, finally taking a place at the forefront of the modern world with a Rio Olympics as a catalyst.
But there’s a grim proverb popular over there: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” It didn’t quite happen as everyone might have hoped, and the Rio Games perhaps has destroyed the narrative that the Olympics is a globally transformative power. Politicians and taxpayers are much more wary, and in the last decade or so dozens of nascent bids around the world for multi-sport Games have never got past a local mayor or an opinion poll. The Winter Olympics is an increasingly difficult sell; the expense versus the return looks even less attractive than the Summer Games.
A positive outcome?
The next two editions of the summer Games, in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, seem likely to be the last of the same old model; the Games in one city, one vastly expensive expression of soft Western power. The double award is a testament to the IOC’s flexibility in keeping the model alive. After that, the Games will either move to a multi-city model or you’ll likely only be seeing it in places with autocratic governments. Possibly both.
The past decade has been a difficult time for the Olympic movement. It’s been difficult to be positive about much in 2020, but if the coronavirus era comes to a close next year, via ‘herd immunity’ or a vaccine or both, a full-steam ahead Tokyo Games might be a genuine collective moment for the world, that will be facing plenty of other existential problems over the next decades. It might even become the defining moment for the Olympic movement. It could be the greatest Games ever.
From a public perspective, the choice was simple and obvious: postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, in the face of global pandemic. Fine. Just hold it next year. For everyone involved in the Olympic movement, the problems were only just beginning.
Shortly before Easter, there was an alarming message from Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of Tokyo 2020, saying that the big show was still not guaranteed for next year. Perhaps he was reacting to the chaotic political reaction to the COVID-19 wave that seems to have finally hit Japan, but it was still surprisingly gloomy.
“I don’t think anyone would be able to say if it is going to be possible to get [the pandemic] under control by next July or not,” Muto said on Friday 10th April. “We’re certainly not in a position to give a clear answer.” A state of emergency has recently been declared in the country, and Japan is about to officially enter a recession.
We are of course firmly in uncharted territory. No Olympics in history has ever been postponed before, and the Olympics has never been larger or more complicated, against a backdrop of an ever-evolving global pandemic that is still not fully understood. Indeed, the start time of an Olympic event has apparently never moved before.
The global sports calendar has collapsed, with the biggest questions over further potential waves of coronavirus, and whether a vaccine will be ready in time for July 2021 – neither of which is answerable at the moment. Some have questioned whether the Paralympics will go ahead as re-planned next year. Dick Pound, the IOC’s media blunt instrument, even started flagging that Beijing 2022 might be under threat. It’s become a cliche, but we are in totally unprecedented times – for sport, and the world.
2021: WHY JULY?
After trying to put the decision off as long as possible, in the end, behind closed doors, there was enough agreement to hold it in the same July / August slot as before – with just a hint of rancour between the organising committee and the IOC. This frustrated a briefly nascent movement trying to push for either an October start or a spring Games. Both would bring logistical hurdles, and an autumn start crosses into Japan’s typhoon season. Both would also cut across some of the sporting calendar, but crucially avoid the worst of the summer heat and humidity in Japan; already casting a large potential shadow, with summer temperatures easily able to hit a murderous 41°C (106°F). The weather is bad enough that the marathon had already been forced to move to Sapporo following the sporting debacle in Doha last year.
But in the end, the interests of the broadcasters prevailed. The networks pay billions of dollars for broadcasting rights in that summer slot when the global sports calendar is otherwise quiet, thus increasing the chances of capturing a bigger audience.
Indeed, back in 2012, the IOC actually stipulated that bidders for 2020 need to hold the event between July 15 and Aug 31. The city of Doha offered to host the 2020 Games in October because of the oppressive summer heat in Qatar; published feedback from their unsuccessful bid indicated that that was a non-starter from the point of view of the broadcasters.
It wasn’t always like this. When Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics back in 1964, they were held in October. The same thing happened in Mexico in 1968. But that was in an era where the attitude towards TV coverage was something like: “if you want to show it, please turn up with your cameras.” An exception was also made for Sydney in 2000, who held the Games in the last two weeks of September.
Now, the TV broadcasters are all powerful. As Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, which broadcast the Games in the USA in the 1990s put it to Reuters: “The Summer Olympics are simply of less value if held in October because of pre-existing program commitments for sports.”
Delaying the Games is going to cost a lot of money, and quite who is going to pay for it hasn’t been settled in detail yet.
The Games were originally costed at $12.6 billion, in US dollars. These things being what they are, the cost has more than doubled to around $26bn, according to an audit last year. All but around $6bn of that is public money. Estimates of the cost of delaying vary between $2bn and $6bn dollars, which will again have to be borne by Tokyo’s taxpayers. The IOC is also on the hook for “several hundred million dollars” of its own costs according to Thomas Bach, the IOC president, speaking to a German newspaper – shortly before he dodged direct questions about further postponement and the status of Russia in the event.
There are costs at almost every stage; the biggest of which are staff and venues. The staff include foreign and local workers, many seconded from the Tokyo Metropolitan government, all of which only had contracts until the end of September. All the venues and the athletes village had legacy plans which will have to be extended by force majeure if necessary, at immense cost. Thousands of tons of branding, infrastructure and equipment will have to be stored for another year. Suppliers will want paying.
The Tokyo 2020 President, former Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori warned the international federations (the governing bodies of each sport, such as World Archery) that they will be on the hook for some of it. In the best traditions of ultra-polite, obscurantist language, he said: “Deciding who will bear these costs and how it will be done will be a major challenge.”
The immense amounts of cash from broadcasters and sponsors for each Games is funnelled through the IOC, which makes a contribution to the operating costs of the organising committee. At the end of each Games, the rest of the money gets split up between the international federations, and national Olympic committees, as well as the IPC, WADA, and various UN projects. The IOC makes great show of the fact that 90% of the Games profits head back out the door to fund sport and humanitarian projects worldwide. After the last summer outing in Rio 2016, the federations received $520 million between them.
Clearly, the IOC’s contribution to Tokyo’s costs in this case will end up being be higher, and Mori was hinting that the pot would be smaller after the Games finally happen in 2021 – which means that the international federations will have a budget headache for the next Olympic cycle. Essentially, they will be partially paying for a delay which wasn’t their fault.
So the federations, expecting a large chunk of their operating budget for the next four years this autumn, already have a problem on their hands. With many of them based in Lausanne, the Swiss government has apparently come up with some bailout measures; unsurprisingly wanting to keep one of their more powerful financial engines turning. But further downstream, national Olympic committees and many precariously-funded national federations will likely be in significant trouble. With the world clearly heading for depression, corporate sponsor budgets for sport will start to dry up.
There are other financial issues; contracts for sponsorship by big ‘gold partner’ corporations such as Toyota only run until the end of the 2020 calendar year. They will be under pressure to extend these contracts, but some, looking at a huge downturn in business and fearing a major global depression, may start pleading poverty. Who will make up the shortfall? Tokyo hotels, holding on to the prospect of a windfall this summer, are already going out of business. Will there be enough room for the millions descending on the city next year?
Two big sub-Olympic competitions have had to postpone due to proximity to the big dance. The World Games, due to be held in Alabama in July 2021, has been pushed back a year. The World Athletics Championships, due to be held in Eugene, Oregon also in July next year, have similarly been pushed back a year. Most other sports (including archery) also hold their world championships in Olympic off-years. It seems likely that more 2021 events will see delays, adjustments, or even outright cancellations.
The World Masters Games were due to be held in Kansai, Japan in May 2021, and supposedly, sets of equipment and chunks of infrastructure from Tokyo 2020 were earmarked for use in the competition. The WMG is a huge tourism cash cow, but in a different city and run by a different government. The organisers are currently keeping tight-lipped about what will happen, but it is clear the event may be under threat – even if the Japanese federal government will be loathe to have a second major event on home turf cancelled. It’s difficult to predict what will happen here, but total cancellation would look terrible for all kinds of reasons.
There are dozens of issues, major and minor, to solve in fields as diverse as qualification, venues, volunteers, anti-doping and broadcasting. Age limits have resulted in a ruling that “next year’s” gymnasts (turning 16) will be eligible, and FIFA is expected to approve a move which will see the upper age-limit for the men’s football raised from 23 to 24 for the 2021 event. Issues of selection get ever more granular: as Bow International pointed out at the end of March, some nations had already publicly selected archery teams for their confirmed national spots. Will they honour those selections a year on?
Tom Dielen, the World Archery secretary-general was interviewed for the Around The Rings podcast on the future problems facing him. He mentioned that one of the confirmed Paralympic judges was within the age limit for 2020, but not for 2021. Should they make an exception? There were further issues with Paralympic athletes because of their invariably more complex needs.
Dielen reiterated that national governing bodies would be given two months notice or more of competition rescheduling or cancellation. He also mentioned that continental events might be easier to organise than international events, depending on the spread of the virus and the situation with air travel.
Archery around the world has stopped, and it is unclear of this writing exactly when it will restart. As the post-COVID-19 world gradually emerges over the next few months, it seems that everybody, including sports will have to continue thinking about social distancing for some time. As an outdoor sport, archery seems like it will have an easier time than some adjusting to the new normal, particularly with the sport’s deep commitment to camaraderie. Rules can be changed. Lines can be re-spaced.
Several media outlets criticised Thomas Bach, the IOC president, for proceeding with this ritual bit of Olympic arcana, a demonstration of the IOC’s insistence that the show must go on against a backdrop of rising deaths all over the world. In the meantime, the Russian sports minister is claiming that the anti-doping ban being served by hundreds of Russian athletes should be overturned against the current chaos, a call that could be described as opportunistic – at best.
With the Russian question remaining unsolved, Bach will be facing by far the toughest challenge of his presidential career over the next 18 months. He is also up for election in 2021; he has not officially confirmed his candidacy, but it would be a surprise if he did not run again. No real successor has yet emerged, but Bach is not universally liked in Lausanne and it is not impossible one could appear, especially if things start going south. (The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is also apparently up for re-election in 2021, and you feel they probably wish they weren’t.)
But it seems that with enough political and cultural will in Japan, all these problems are surmountable; in a coming depression, holding on to the vast and already-sunk costs with the prospect of a payoff down the road becomes even more important. Perhaps, after each country completes its three months (or so) of lockdown and slowly relaxes other containment measures, something like normality will start approaching again by the summer. Perhaps. The great fear is another wave of virus this time next year; some have even suggested that without an available vaccine against COVID-19, the Games simply cannot go ahead.
More widely, the summer Olympics is the single genuinely global event, and it would be be fitting, perhaps even vital for humanity to hold it at the end of a worldwide crisis.
But one thing is certain: there’s a lot of ground to cover before we can be absolutely sure of seeing an opening ceremony in Shinjuku on the 23rd of July, 2021.
It was pleasing to read that Sarah Sonnichsen, who hasn’t really been seen on the international circuit for two whole years, was spotted in Vegas shooting in the compound flights, where she put in a decent but not extraordinary 885. We last caught up with her here.
But essentially, she’s still completely quit, because she’s happier not doing it than doing it. Not many people right at the very top of the sport have straight-out quit before, but it’s an oddity and a shame that with female compound archers – the side of the sport with just a literal handful of professionals – it’s not been the biggest deal.
Whatever Sarah finishes up doing; you hope, of course, that it’ll make her happier than full-time archery, anyway. And also, that we shouldn’t forget the people who decide to hang up their bow forever.
Last month I was asked to contribute to World Archery’s archer of the decade piece, as a resident ‘expert’. It wasn’t easy making a choice, as there were more than a few options, and picking one archer across a sport divided forever into hard categories is, of course, impossible. However, four stand out across the two main WA bowstyles. The names will probably not surprise you, but I’m going to explain the why in a bit more detail, and why I think they should be in that particular order.
4. Mike Schloesser
Watching Mikey in full flow when scoring is remarkable. It’s a marked expression of archery at its simplest and most effortless. Indeed, scoring is without doubt his strongest point. Right in the middle of the decade, in Nimes, in January 2015, he became the first man to score 600 out of 600 in World Archery indoor competition, leading to the nickname Mr Perfect. (He repeated the feat last year). Twice a Vegas champion, in 2014 and 2017, he ends the second month of 2020 the World Cup champion and – as of yesterday at this writing – the indoor World Series champion too.
But this is the new decade. You don’t always get the very best of Mikey in straight competition, and in gold medal matches, particularly in the last year or so, he’s often seemed to be close to throwing it away, particularly on the very last arrow. Usually, however, he is far enough ahead that a terrible eight doesn’t matter. He’s already won. And one of his best qualities is a refreshing honesty about the nerves and neuroticism that infects competitors at the very top of the compound sport – sometimes to recover and fight again, sometimes not. Mikey seems to be constantly, but barely, keeping the demons at bay.
The list of achievements is long and extraordinary, and there appears to be no boogeyman, no-one that gives him the scares. Yet. It’s been mostly Mikey’s decade, but the competition at the highest men’s level is now so elevated that he hasn’t quite carved out the furrow that say, Reo Wilde managed. But that may still be to come.
3. Brady Ellison
The decade 2010-2019 is a tale of two Bradys. Archers with longer memories will remember his performances in 2010 and 2011, when he dominated the World Cup circuit like no one before, or since. You might remember his role in the classic men’s team final in London 2012. You might remember a lot of things.
But there was wilderness too, even when he was still making the business end of tournaments. Several times between 2016 and 2018, Brady suggested he was going to return to shooting compound, where he started, and often after a bad round or a rough competition. (He said it to my face at least once – I still have it on tape). He even shot a couple of US competitions using both compound and recurve. He suffered a parade of problems with his fingers, which almost caused him to quit. He complained about the set system as unfair, although that slowed down a bit after the 2016 World Cup Final. He sometimes changed bows every week, searching for something that brought him back to where he wanted to be. He was occasionally a stomping, snorting mess, but many of his outbursts, often shortly after matches, were clearly born out of deep frustration at not quite achieving the incredibly high standards he sets himself.
But all that was building towards an extraordinary 2019, where he essentially hit a kind of god-mode of recurve shooting. It was something approaching total mastery of the competitive side of the sport, and glorious to watch. Magnetic. One of the most enjoyable things about watching Brady shoot is the way he rides the waves of his emotions, he’s the very opposite of a cool, machine-like shooter. You can see this best in my single favourite photograph that Dean Alberga has ever taken.
In 2019, he seemed entirely in control of everything. He radiated, um, energy, projecting his control of matches ahead of time. He is also pretty much the only male archer the top Korean men actually fear to face – they’ve almost admitted as such.
Many people put Brady top of the list for the best of the decade, and I think a lot of that is based on his astonishing performance in 2019. They might be forgetting the rather more up and down years of the 2010s. He enters 2020 crushing it indoors, having apparently pulled Jack Williams almost up to his level, and pulling off a 900 with a recurve in Vegas, one of the more extraordinary achievements in his career. But we’re in a new decade now.
I can’t see Jack Williams or anyone else taking the single outdoor spot for men in Tokyo, which will be KiSik Lee’s swansong as a coach. If the USA men don’t qualify a team, and it’s just Brady, it will be a one man show. But on the current showing – and with the current mindset – he’s going to win it all. Isn’t he?
2. Sara Lopez
Sara López Bueno almost unstoppable ability to win matches, since she arrived on the scene in 2013, at times can seem almost supernatural. Pushed hard by the by the arrival of coach Heber Mantilla, she has been the star of one of the most successful elite programmes of all time, driving on a sheaf of world-class archers. Mantilla is apparently the perfect foil for the wilful, headstrong, and opinionated Lopez, and turned her into an almost demonic force on the line – ironic, for a God-fearing lady.
Easily my favourite thing about Sara Lopez is her defining lack of self-doubt when standing on the line at full draw. There are no questions, only answers. An no-return approach to execution. This is how it will be. It is only now (an approach shared by one of my favourite champions, Ksenia Perova). There is a quiet ruthlessness too; she hates to lose to anybody, because it gives them a psychological wedge in the door.
Lopez took over seamlessly from Erika Jones as the dominant woman in her sport, and it didn’t take long to firmly stamp her authority. In the years that followed, the record of titles and wins, world records, World Cups, stretches at number one et al is extraordinary, and unmatched by any other archer. I can’t even add them all up. Last year she added the Pan-American title in what seemed like a forgone conclusion. She once won 31 matches in a row, against all the top ten. She went unbeaten for an entire year. No one has a winning record against her. She has completely dominated her era. The Serena Williams of archery.
The fact she managed all this whilst being an off-on medical student is just ridiculous. Sometimes, it seemed the only opportunities the rest of the top ten got was when she had to knock off archery and go back to university for a while. It’s not surprising she kept up her studies – the opportunities to be a professional women’s compound archer are still pretty close to zero.
Yet you feel that her career will always remain incomplete without the senior outdoor world title, which has somehow eluded her in three attempts; most memorably in Copenhagen in 2015, when she fell to Crystal Gauvin in the semi-final. If she can bag that, she could retire like Park Sung Hyun, having won literally everything and carved a permanent, deep furrow in the sport.
I was lucky enough to be at the 2016 Odense World Cup Final, and with a ringside seat for the final match between Ki Bo Bae and her teammate Choi Misun. It wasn’t the greatest battle ever seen, but there was a moment. Ki Bo Bae put in a ten, the first for a while. (I think it’s this one). Her hand dropped to her right hip, and clenched with incredible aggression. You could see her wrist shaking. It was a tiny gesture, but it said everything about the urge to win. A competition she had already won once, and in a year she had already taken more Olympic medals than any other archer. The implacable urge to triumph, to control.
It was a little echo of the tearful press conference after her double gold at London 2012, and the bland translation of an answer to a question about her last arrow: “A Korean does not shoot an eight.” What she really meant was that she didn’t shoot eights. Bo Bae mostly kept her vicious competitive streak under wraps behind a mask of beaming professionalism, but just occasionally, it would leap to the surface. Her technique, with her unusual ability to snap her shoulders right behind her body, is the model of perfect, relaxed repetition.
It took her many years in the Korean system to shine, but eventually Ki Bo Bae came closer than most to the most fabled prize in archery yet to be won in 120 years – defending an individual Olympic title. In trying, she ratcheted up three Olympic golds and a bronze, much more than anyone else. She also became world champion in 2015, took two Universiade crowns and three World Cup Final wins, and became the engine and anchor behind countless Korean women’s team victories too – and survived falling out of the national system for a year to make a spectacular comeback in Rio, something managed by none of her peers.
On top of the unarguable results, she brought a celebrity quality to a sport which sometimes lacks for star power. People turned out to see her as they turn out to see Brady.
Shortly after her World Cup Final win in 2017 she got married and started a family. There’s a lot of archers with young children on the elite lines, but it’s really only the Koreans whose team spots are under relentless pressure from a youth system generating ever better athletes. Recent events seem to show her career fading out; crying in interviews and an ignominious exit at an early stage from the Olympic trials for Tokyo, robbing the archery world of a truly incredible story arc. If she did quit – and you suspect she must be contemplating it at least – she would have to retire without an individual Asian Games title, and thus not completing the fabled ‘triple crown’ of Korean archery (only apparently achieved by Park Sung Hyun, the greatest of all time), although she did win the Asian Games team title back in 2010.
We’re really talking about different worlds, when trying to pick the very best of the decade; it is almost impossible to compare compound with recurve. But recurve archery is ultimately measured by the summer Olympics, and Ki Bo Bae’s record of three golds and a bronze, plus the world champs and many others, triumphs over all. If Lopez had been world champion, she would have been top, for sheer crushing dominance. If Brady had taken even a single Olympic gold to go with his other titles, it might well have been him. He is undoubtedly the archer’s archer, and its current biggest star. The next decade could be Mike’s. The next two decades could be Mike’s. But the choice is pretty clear. Ki Bo Bae is the archer of the decade.
Hidden amongst the stories from the Asian Championships and the South Asian Games in Nepal – Bhutan’s breakthrough among them – was this remarkable story about Ety Khatun, age 14, of Bangladesh, who escaped an arranged marriage at just 11 years old to become an archer. She took a gold medal, one of a host for Bangladesh at the SEA, cementing their reputation as one of archery’s most exciting emerging nations.
Ety Khatun, 14, the daughter of a sweet-seller, defied her parents attempts to marry her in 2016 as they struggled to get by in a remote village in western Bangladesh.
On Monday, Khatun won a third gold medal in archery at the South Asian games in Nepal, a rare sporting success for Bangladesh which has yet to land an Olympic medal.
“My parents wanted me to get married. I cried a lot and didn’t eat for two days. I forced them to send me to Dhaka to take part in an archery training camp,” Khatun told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Nepal.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage, according to the United Nations.
The country has banned the practise and in 2018 launched a phone app to digitally verify the ages of brides and grooms.
Still, more than half of all girls are married before they are 18.
Khatun may have become one of them had she not been spotted by scouts from the Bangladesh Archery Federation.
“We had selected about 60 potential archers from various regions and she was one of them,” said national coach Ziaul Hoque.
Smaller in stature than her peers, many underestimated Khatun.
“Not much was expected from her,” Hoque said.
But she proved mentally strong, and, in 2018, won bronze at a national archery competition.
“That’s when my parents stopped pressurising me to get married,” said Khatun.
Today her parents back her and revel in her achievements.
Her father remains the family’s sole breadwinner, something Khatun hopes to change.
“(He) has allergy issues and can’t work in winters. If something happens to him we don’t know what we will do. I hope archery can help me support my family and bring peace to them,” she said.
Urging young girls from her village to follow her path she said: “If you work hard, anything is possible. If you are scared and sit back, nothing will work.”
You often forget, from a position in the West, that Olympic sport in many countries is an escape to other possibilities, rather than a choice; however driven. The doc about Deepika Kumari released a couple of years ago sheds a lot of light on the situation. It might be time for another watch.