The two pics above were taken by Gabriel Buitrago at the Medellin World Cup a couple of days ago. (You can see the rest of his Flickr stream here.) They show the Korean women’s recurve team lining up like… well, schoolgirls, to listen to their coach, Ryu-Soo Jung. The lower pic catches at least the younger members of the Korean men’s team in mid-bow to their coach. Bowing in South-East Asian culture is a deeply ingrained part of society, and it’s not surprising to see in in sporting contexts, either. I visited Japan a few years ago and went to see a football match (FC Tokyo v Albirex Niigata) where the entire home team squad bowed to each section of each stand after the match, the whole process taking nearly ten minutes before the guys could go off and have a shower. I was personally bowed to for nothing more than buying a few postcards in a shop, which made me feel a bit awkward, frankly.
I ‘met’ Ryu-Soo Jung (above right) in Wroclaw last year, when I got slightly too close to her charges trying to get photographs of the Korean squad for you, dear readers. She gave me a look that could curdle milk. I got out of the way.
The culture of deference towards teachers – indeed, anyone older than yourself – in Korea is based upon Confucian principles, and the education system, while staggeringly successful on a global comparative scale, is frequently criticised by non-Asian Westerners for its pressure cooker atmosphere and lack of creativity, amongst much else. But in recurve archery, the standardised system of training and complete subservience to coaches has resulted in a deep pool of elite level archers, and a series of results which speak entirely for themselves. No one comes to archery later in life or even in their late teens – the talent is nurtured from age 6 and up. However, the junior archers fit the system, and not the other way around – left-handers, for example, are encouraged to take up other sports and will never make it through the high-school / university / professional system that could take them to an international event or the Olympics.
It is easy to say “this is how it’s done”, but realistically, there is no chance of this happening in any other country. These photographs are a visible representation of a long, deep, pragmatic and complex process that only happens in one place. You can import the coaches, the biomechanical approach to shooting, and the brutal levels of training, but you can’t import the social dynamics, sporting systems and money that Korea has in place to produce recurve archery champions over and over again.
Thanks to Chris Hill.