Ki Bo Bae is still clearly carrying some sway on Korean sports media, and was happy to do an interview, which ended up rather tearful at points. If you want the details, try reading this piece in translation, but the gist of it is: she is really genuine in her desire to continue as an athlete, but she’s finding combining motherhood and training very difficult indeed.
In the first stage of the selection process for Tokyo, an open tournament that cut to 64 at the end of August, she came 37th. With only three spots available, those hoping for the big comeback next year may have to start adjusting their expectations.
It’s tough at the top, and tougher for parents. There are now multiple parents of young children on the elite recurve lines, including Taylor Worth, Ksenia Perova, Inna Stepanova, Taru Kuoppa, Lidiia Sichenikova, Alexandra Mirca, Lee Seungyun and Oh Jin Hyek to name but a few. Perhaps the greatest Korean Olympic archer of all, Kim Soo Nyung was a parent of two children when she made her comeback to win team gold at Sydney 2000, although you could argue that that was in an era where there was [slightly] less competition for the three crucial spots.
It’s difficult to imagine a ferocious competitor like Bo Bae giving up, but perhaps her life has shifted onto a different track now.
It’s Wednesday afternoon in Den Bosch, and it’s been pissing it down all morning. Ninety-six recurve archers have been preparing for one of the most important matches of their lives on a practice field in horrible rain and near black skies.
This is, of course, the medal match that decides forty eight of the places for the Tokyo Olympics. For the majority of the archers who have never been, it’s probably even more important than their performance at the Olympics itself. Going to the Games remains the high point for a great many archery careers, and long after you pack away the bow for the final time, it’s the badge that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It’s the thing that matters to the rest of the world. A bronze medal at the worlds will matter to the people on this field, your peers. But becoming an Olympian is what matters to everyone else, forever. And chances are, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen right here, right now.
It’s unfair, of course. It’s judging you on a handful of arrows, out of the million plus you might post over a long archery career. You are reliant not just upon yourself, but the weakest shooter, that day, of the three of you going up to the line. Maybe the weakest shooter is you, and you know it, and it could be you grinding someone else’s dreams into the dust.
There’s a lot more riding on it for everyone else around you. Coaches, especially. It’s highly likely to change the course of their career, for better or worse. It may change national government funding for the next four years, or forever. It might change the entire course of the sport in your country. For a lot of the people around you, this match is more important than whatever you might manage to produce on a field in Tokyo next July. Expectations is putting it mildly.
So all the energy of this immense, partially rained-out gathering of hundreds of archers from across the world, for the first few days is going directly towards this single team match. For those that have made it, without being too hyperbolic, the fate of nations hangs upon them.
The rugby field that hosts the qualification is damp and cramped and there is barely enough space for everything; archers, coaches, bows and scopes; it’s hard to move. Because of the number of things to cover, the media team have split up into bases, and I don’t get to choose what I want to see. For the men’s matches, I get to watch Chinese Taipei vs France, and India vs Canada, close up, first hand. You can almost smell the testosterone in the air by the time the warm-up arrows have gone down. But you also see the flickers of fear on everyone’s face.
I try to take photographs, but nothing captures the archery-on-steroids noise of what follows. Guys you normally see well controlling their emotions – Atanu Das, Pierre Plihon – become snorting, screaming charging bulls, every release marked with a vent of energy, fists not tapped, but smashed against each other. Behind me is a row of tents, and behind that a noisy rail of every nation screaming encouragement. Taipei, normally quite a disciplined lot, look like they are letting out demons.
India punch and scream their way to a victory over the Canadian men, who have actually shot superbly, with a 58 in the third set. But they don’t have Tarundeep Rai anchoring, who is on goddamn fire. India deserved the win, but Canada didn’t deserve to lose, you could say. Rough. They knew they were good.
But it’s roughest on the French men. All but one of their 24 arrows first goes in the yellow, but just a few too many are nines. You can tell Valladont – who is dressed, it must be said, like a village idiot – is struggling a little, still carrying the trace of an injury that sidelined him throughout 2018. Taipei pull more tens out, and their tiebreak is confident and aggressive. But it isn’t fair. It’s not a performance to be ashamed of. But it’s not there.
The women come out. On my right, India v Belarus. From the whistle, something is wrong. India shoot a miss. Their second stringer Komalika Bari has something wrong with her armguard. The coach runs in. In the second end, it happens again, and Bari puts two arrows low, in the black. Some minor technical problem, in the most important match of the last four years. Belarus, despite a couple of indifferent ends, are 4-0 up. India recover in the third, but you feel it’s over, and it is. To my left, again, we have Chinese Taipei vs. France. Taipei look ready to kill, and they open with a 57 against France’s 56. It sets the tone for the rest of the match. It’s done from there on in.
I walk to the target on the last end. Audrey Adiceom and Melanie Gaubil are looking at their final set of arrows like they are looking at an abstract painting in a art gallery, bemusedly trying to work out what it means. Hoping it might rearrange itself into something that made more sense. Across the field, I can see the German girls literally jumping in the air. It’s the first time they’ve qualified a full women’s team for the Olympics in twenty years. Deepika Kumari screams in Hindi at her teammate. I don’t know what she’s saying, but it’s pretty clear. People are balled up on the floor of the tents at the back, crying. It’s horrific. But it’s done. And what is done, will change your archery career, for ever.
Ksenia Perova, the talismanic leader of the Russian recurve team, is the defending champion. There is not to be a repeat, after she goes out in the last eight. I need a quote from her. I know she doesn’t speak English; at least not enough English to deliver the kind of pithy soundbite Im looking for. I look around for the usual suspects I know who can translate; Sayana Tsyemprilova, Vladimir Esheev. Nobody in sight. She looks at me. I say ‘do it in Russian’, and tape it. The result in English, I have to thank my friend Kristina for:
“I am of course upset that I have lost, but I think that after qualifying in the 52nd place, it is good that I have gone up and am amongst the top eight strongest athletes. It is a decent result. Thanks to all my opponents. The Korean team is of course very strong, but we will fight.”
I don’t have the expression on her face in there, or the pathos, the resignation, the professionalism, or the sense of loss in her voice. They don’t pull down the essence of what happened. You don’t get the nuances. You don’t get the tone, whether something was a joke, or bitter, or not. You just have the words. But you have to go and get the words, whether people are devastated or elated or whatever.
In Rio, I had to supervise some junior reporters, and I still treasure the quote gathered by one of them, after perhaps the favourite for the women’s title took an early bath:
Korea had it coming. This article in Bow International explains why, at least a little. None of them really looked like champions. The tone was set by Lee Woo Seok, who spent official practice day in a local hospital having a battery of scans. Looking like death, he turned up the next day and shot – and still finished top of qualification. It was painful to watch, but the guy is like a dog – refusing to show weakness. Over 72 arrows, the Koreans still rule the show, and possibly always will, but on the short course, they all looked vulnerable.
Apparently the Koreans had Bae Jae Hyeon, silver medallist in Berlin, run to Incheon airport to get on a plane, business class. He was through security and sitting in the lounge when the call came to stand down. You would have thought they’d at least let the lad collect his air miles and get a day off in Holland. (His bow had gone on an earlier flight and actually turned up in Den Bosch).
The men losing, both individually and in the team semifinal, was less surprising to anyone who had been following their patchy results over the last year. But the women losing? A bigger shock, but it was coming. You only have to look at the way the two teams walk on stage. Right here. Korea look like they are coming out for an exhibition match. Taipei look like they have come to kick the shit out of whoever is there, and they don’t care who. They were more focused, more disciplined and they wanted it more.
Chang Hyejin has looked terrible in almost every match I have watched her in this year, since the lofty heights she achieved at the start of 2018. If she is still in charge of the team, she is no longer leading from the front. The singular urge to dominate and win, which you still see in Woo Seok and you used to see in Ki Bo Bae, seems absent from the current frontline. You might think of shades of the worst days of the England football team at international tournaments; overpaid, overtired at the end of a season, and uncommitted to the result.
A friend of mine observing the travelling Korean team in Nimes one year said he was surprised to see them all in McDonalds one evening, and in Burger King the next. “I thought they’d be more like athletes.” The indoor gig may be a holiday for them, but the World Championships certainly is not. I see one of the six – I will spare their blushes – eating an entire large pack of Maltesers in between their matches on the Sunday. I can speculate about motivation and culture and the life of a pro across the world, but, ultimately, I don’t know why they didn’t perform. But I do know a large pack of Maltesers probably won’t make me a champion.
And so to Minsk. For some reason, Europe was the last region of the world to finally get an official sub-Olympic multisport competition, with the first edition being held in Baku in 2015. Around the world, the Asian Games has become a huge event over several decades, with the Pan-American Games closing in fast. There is also a Pacific Games and an African Games, both offering Olympic spots for archery and many other sports. A total of 4000 athletes descended on Belarus’ capital to contest dozens of events in fifteen sports. But just like the last edition, it really did not make an enormous impact on the public consciousness in Western Europe, confined to minor satellite channels and barely mentioned in the sports press.
I speak to a photographer from [well-known photo agency], who had pitched up at the archery and said they had only sent ‘two guys’, when twenty might attend an Olympic Games. He says he emailed the Berlin office and asked them what they needed, and they seemed barely aware that it was on.
The city itself has a fascinating history, rebuilt after appalling devastation in the second world war in a grand, Napoleonic style, and welcoming the influx of visitors for the largest event in its post-war history. The transport, food and especially the design were praised across the board. I ride to the venue on dedicated buses down the glorious Stalinist boulevards, and the entire event is staffed by thousands of enthusiastic young volunteers beamingly representing Europe’s last dictatorship.
The training ground for FC Minsk was the host for the archery competition, a location it shared with the riotous beach soccer finals field. Not far from the venue there was a theme park and the screams from a nearby rollercoaster echoing across the field made some matches just straight weird. The beach soccer couldn’t have been more different from the archery, they play music non-stop. And they have dancing girls. Like it’s the 1970s or something. But it didn’t stop me thinking, why don’t we have dancing girls? It’s been mentioned a few times that archery is looking for its equivalent of beach volleyball. I mean. Maybe.
The photo manager is kind enough to give me a bib that lets me access the photo position, but it’s extremely limited in terms of range. There is a single long bench to sit on on the right side side of the range, and that’s it. With a huge camera crane in the way. Which is why a lot of the photos from the event look rather similar. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, many of the pros were all moaning.
The format of the archery competition at the European Games followed the Olympic pattern, with qualification followed by team events and then all individual matches played out one by one on the finals field; everyone got their turn in the sun, and sun it was, with almost all matches played out until the last day in sweltering temperatures and capricious winds. Until the last day.
Minsk also allowed Olympic qualification in mixed team and individual. Up to four were available, in the end, only three were handed out: to Lucilla Boari, Gaby Bayardo, and Pablo Acha. There was little respite for France, who I watched getting stuffed in Den Bosch and again here. Many teams seemed here just for the Olympic spots. I sometimes think that it’s good that the Olympics is unquestionably the pinnacle of the recurve sport, unlike a lot of other perennials at the Summer Games. But it also skews things violently towards a single competition every four years. Listening to them talk, many of them would swap winning the European Games or a World Cup for an Olympic spot in a heartbeat. There’s not only one thing in archery.
Nespoli was incredible. He looked like the strongest there. He looked like a mountain. He was going to take it from the moment he walked out there. You didn’t need to call it for the win. He was kind of there already.
The last day however, saw a catastrophic judging error, that ultimately meant that Dan Olaru and Sjef van den Berg had to replay the end of a match that Sjef had already won – at least according to the rule books. Both walked back out for a shootoff, in grim conditions, which Olaru won. I can’t really comment on this further, because the fallout from it, at this writing, hasn’t quite yet settled to the ground – even though I’d like to. But it was an ugly way to finish a competition which showed that the very best in Europe were the very best.
Perhaps the European Games, in a few editions time, might become a major competition that archers regard as the best moment of their career, and not just a stepping stone to something else, something happening the year after. Perhaps.
Antalya is blessed with many things: eternal sunshine, pleasant beaches, delicious fruit and veg, nice people, no-one talking about Brexit and so on. You’re probably familiar with the fact that it’s an eternal fixture on the World Cup circuit, but it’s become a training camp base for many other teams and squads during the rest of the year as well. Why wouldn’t you? It’s well nice.
In Britain, archery isn’t ‘real archery’ unless it involves mud. ‘Real archery’ is rolling a heavy straw boss across a muddy field towards a dark shed in fast-dimming light in temperatures so cold you can’t feel your hands, which is probably just as well, because they’ve now got fox shit on them. It’s not like that in Turkey. No wonder the Russians pitch up here half the year now.
The other big draw for competitors to the Antalya stage is the Rixos hotel, a five-star white edifice perched on the clifftop above Konyaalti Beach, and one of the better establishments in the area. There’s a decent pool and a spa, and an OTT approach with the buffet that improves morale all round. I mean, ten different types of olives. At breakfast. Twenty types of cheese (most of which taste the same). That kind of thing. And it’s only a ten minute walk or a three minute bus ride from the competition field.
Not everyone stays there, of course. Less well-heeled teams have to slum it in one of two or three hotels a bit further down the chain. What a shame.
All rooms at the Rixos have balconies. Legend has it that a well-known Korean archer (no clues, but her name rhymes with Three Dough Gray) was once photographed completely in flagrante on her balcony by some post-competition party-goers on a different balcony on the Sunday night – although no-one, naturally, has ever produced this photographic evidence. The Korean team also throw one member of their team into the pool, fully clothed, every year. But this year, the Korean team didn’t turn up.
Another ever-present feature of Turkey is the huge numbers of stray cats and dogs everywhere. Istanbul is famous for them, but they are all over Antalya, too. This fella here (below) was kindly and sleepily guarding the new path that dangles out across the cliff out the back of the Rixos and leads to a lift that takes you down to the beach.
They occasionally had to shoo a couple off the competition field too. You hear the odd howl at night. Poor sods.
They mostly manage to keep the stray dogs out of the Rixos; the cats, however, are small enough to slip in to the hotel restaurant, and pretty much every time you sit down for a meal, a minute or two later you look down and there’s a miaow, and someone wants their cut of your dinner. They also try the old subtly-brush-past-your-leg manoeuvre too. Most of the cats are young. I’m guessing it’s a short life.
So everything settled into familiar patterns. Everyone is familiar with Antalya – some of the peleton have been going here for ten years – and the competition, a vast ante-room for the imminent World Championships, didn’t throw up any massive shocks. Notty’s crew of junior compounders smashed records. A bunch of lesser known Asian nations turned up (both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, along with the mildly more familiar Kazakhstan, made an appearance – although not at the business end of things).
The Kazakhstan strip has a giant oversize ‘KZ’ logo on it. It reminds me a little of the knockoff Calvin Klein t-shirts you used to see down Chapel Market in the 1990s. It’s absolutely brilliant. More of this sort of ostentatious thing. (Although archery does need an equivalent of Kit Crimes.)
The last couple of days, when the circus moves to the beach, saw some really strong competition and some exciting matches. Like, actual tension. Yes. As a TV spectacle it is constantly improving, but the magic happens when the sport throws up something that pushes people into critical situations. (It was more often than not the bronze matches that caught the attention this year).
Watching Brady Ellison was the most remarkable of all. He seems to have slipped into a kind of god-mode recently. Before he went out for the gold medal match, he claimed to have shot eight thirties in a row on the practice range. It seemed likely. As in Medellin, there was a sense of unstoppability. No one else could really come close. Watching him, I was reminded of one of the best archery quotes of all, by the 2008 Olympic champion Zhang JuanJuan:
The most important thing is having a strong basic technique and movement. Having said that, what makes an archer a champion is their psychological strength – and confidence – because this is what gives them the ability to control a match. You need to have heart as an archer and an athlete. This is what really makes the difference.
I didn’t pick him for the Worlds before, but I do now. None of the serious Asian or European challengers for the title will get past him , if he can keep that momentum going. It’s not just score. There’s an increasing presence about the man. (In other circles, it’s called… this). It would be well deserved if he managed it, of course.
But the Worlds have a history of surprising everybody.
Thanks to all the team(s): my team, your team, their team.
45 years ago, the World Archery Championships were held in Grenoble, France. I came across these photos from the archive of Mikhail Peunov, who competed for the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics, finishing 12th. They were uploaded by Seva Masyakin on the fabulous 1960s and 1970s Archery page on Facebook, and I have added some of his annotations. They evoke a very different era of archery indeed.
The news this morning that the 74 year old pensioner shot with a crossbow bolt on Good Friday has died is the latest and most appalling in a long line of recent incidentswithcrossbowsintheUK. Easy to buy on the internet, and popular with people looking for an no-training weapon in a country that has very strict gun legislation, crossbows have been the idiot’s choice for decades. Of course, there have been accidents with bows and arrows, but the learning curve puts off the very worst kind of idiot. Not so with crossbows, unfortunately.
Crossbows are not ‘archery’. The narrow definition of archery is a bow and an arrow, whereas a crossbow fires a bolt. Taking a broader perspective, crossbow shooting shares elements with archery (especially historically), and some elements with gun/rifle shooting, but at the same time it is neither of those things. It sits awkwardly across the two.
There is a small but very dedicated target crossbow shooting sector in the UK, but only in a few tiny corners of the target archery world do bows and crossbows stand together. ArcheryGB covers crossbows in their rules of shooting, although they certainly don’t shout about it. They are banned on a very large number of archery ranges.
In my capacity as an British archery journo, about a year ago I was asked to go on BBC Radio as part of a debate with a regional MP who wanted crossbows further restricted from sale, after a previous incident. It was entirely clear from the tone of the email that they wanted someone from the ‘archery’ world who could provide a pro-crossbow point-of-view, in the name of the essential ‘balance’ that these things invariably require. I was more annoyed that someone could conflate the two things, although I don’t blame the harassed researcher directly. (I politely declined).
I’ve occasionally had messages from arbalists believing that we should all stand together as bow-shooting sports or what have you. The problem with this is that archery as a sport has maintained, in the public’s eyes, a near spotless image recently, contributing to its rise in the last few years, and the associated TV exposure and so on. Crossbows remain associated with appalling news headlines and criminality, and subject to range bans and increasing legislation. Which is a shame. But not surprising.
I am absolutely sure all the dedicated crossbow target shooters out there are committed to the sport, and to safety and to maintaining a safe image. Good luck out there.
Sorry guys, but in 2019, you’re on your own. Archery has everything to lose and little to gain from having you in the fold. It’s not because of you, per se. Unfortunately, it’s because there are too many idiots in the world.
At last year’s Berlin World Cup, Chinese Taipei took a major Korean tournament scalp when their men’s team beat the guys in white with a spectacular final ten from anchor Wei Chun Heng – a match-up repeated, with the same result, for far higher stakes at last year’s Asian Games in Jakarta.
After following this sport for many years I can now hum the national anthem of the Republic of Korea on cue, but I had never heard the Chinese Taipei national anthem. It turned out to be serviceable, generic, and forgettable. Which is not that surprising, because ultimately it is a placeholder, or perhaps a kind of musical fig leaf. The anthem, the flag and the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ are all deliberately and carefully chosen to not quite mean anything at all.
The island of Taiwan as an independent entity became so after a civil war in China that raged in the late 1940s, and the mainland People’s Republic of China has never recognised the island, 110 miles off the coast, as a legitimate state.
The history of relations could fill several books, but the PRC has maintained its ‘One China’ stance for many decades, and refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognises the Republic Of China, aka Taiwan, as an independent state. You say Taiwan exists, its bye bye trade, travel and everything else from mainland China. Because of this very real (and frequently carried out) threat, Taiwan today is still not officially recognised as an independent nation by most countries in the world, apart from a handful of developing countries and the Vatican, for reasons you can delve into yourself.
In practice, most developed nations maintain some kind of de facto diplomatic mission in Taiwan under the guise of a ‘trade federation’ or similar. An occasionally tense state of geopolitical equilibrium has developed, which appears to suit everyone in one way or another.
Cross-strait relations even spilled into archery. The former FITA president Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone recounts a cunning bit of politicking he had to do involving Taiwan and mainland China in the 1970s, which you can find on the World Archery website. But in 1979, a cultural breakthrough happened when the International Olympic Committee passed what is known as the Nagoya Resolution, which allowed Taiwan to participate in Olympic sport.
To do so under the name ‘Taiwan’ would invite political disaster. The name Chinese Taipei was carefully chosen and negotiated to be deliberately ambiguous, implying it could be part of mainland China, yet separate – but perhaps not subordinate. (Taipei City is the Taiwanese capital). The name only exists in English; helpfully, the word ‘Chinese’ can refer to nations or just culture. A similarly ambiguous flag was developed with the Olympic rings, and a forgotten tune – not the official national anthem of Taiwan – was recycled as a ‘flag anthem‘, with new words stridently praising Olympism.
In Taiwan itself, out of direct edict or national pride, you will never see the words ‘Chinese Taipei’. The archery team’s international achievements are well-publicised, and their newspapers loudly trump: ‘Taiwanese archers won a medal…’ ‘Taiwan triumphs at World Cup….’.
The subterfuge may be accepted, but it is rarely mentioned, at least not in their English-language press. Issues of nationalism and independence continue to bubble away on both sides of the strait, and may not be resolved for many decades yet, despite the occasional recent bit of sabre-rattling.
I once asked a well-known member of the squad, via a translator, a roundabout question about what it was like to represent ‘Chinese Taipei’ and got a polite smile and a shake of the head ; unsurprisingly, there was absolutely zero chance of them talking about it.
For recurve archers, and many athletes, representing your country in the Olympics or another major tournament is the pinnacle of the sport. I don’t know what it feels like, when the current world number two team win and have to stand up in front of a flag and an anthem which represents a series of complicated, delicate political compromises, rather than themselves and whatever their sense of nationhood is. But I’d be interested to find out.
A version of this article originally appeared in Bow International magazine.
The stylised archer (above) is derived from the full set of pictograms designed by Nikolai Belkov, a graduate of the Mukhina Arts School in Leningrad. However, I’m not sure who came up with the chap below, who has a touch of the Egyptian warrior about him, with a decidedly up-the-revolution worker’s cap on top.
See the full set here. I particularly love the judo one, apparently unique amongst Olympic pictographic depictions in that it doesn’t show two fighters engaged in combat.
The Olympics aren’t the only time archery has appeared on matchboxes, as these covetable charmers from Finland and Poland, prove:
So I went to Vegas, to take photos for the NFAA. Lots of them. So many. More than you can possibly imagine. And it was a lot more difficult than I thought it might be. Nah, who’s he kidding. I’d like his job. Yeah, I’m pretty lucky really.
My brief was mostly cover ‘real people’, rather than serious competitive archers, who obviously aren’t real people. But I did some of those anyway.
The photos were almost all pretty straightforward, but The Vegas Shoot is by turns the greatest thing ever and the most exhausting weirdness, sometimes at the same time. I hope I occasionally got a shimmer of that, anyway.
During the practice ends I decided it wouldn’t be that intrusive to break out the 20mm lens, on the ends of the line. This is an ultrawide lens that requires you to get really close to your subject – too close, really – but rewards you with a grandiose, yet personal feel if you get the right background. Closer to what the eye sees than a fisheye, but still unreal.
The barebow lines had all the interesting people. And this service dog. With some shoes.
Fatemah Ghasempour is, apparently, the first female archer from Iran to shoot barebow. Ever.
It hurts, frankly, to push the supplied pins into the bales with your fingers. Some people even bring hammers. Or make their own arrangements.
Sara Lopez (Colombia). Looking at the screen. Or maybe praying. Both very possible.
Just before the final championship shootdown I did exactly what I did last year, which was position myself by the screen that the final 900’ers have to walk past, one by one, to get into the arena. Again with the ultrawide, you are right in people’s faces. There is no element of quietly documenting. You are very much taking a picture of someone, and they are hyper aware of it. I tried to be quiet and polite and unobtrusive, but just not hide in any way what I was doing. The camera is only a foot or so away from their face. Which makes for some interesting results. Some played the all-American superman, some enjoyed it, some ignored it, some were super nervous, and PJ Deloche looked at me and just gave a cheeky grin.
So I beat an Olympic champion in Rome this weekend.
Only joking. I spent a load of money and flew all the way to Rome to shoot like absolute garbage in front of an audience of my peers and friends. But apart from that, I had a pretty good time.
The inaugural Roma Archery Trophy wasn’t held very near anything in Rome you might ever have heard of. It was held in hall 9 of a vast, sprawling exhibition and conference centre complex called Fieri di Roma, which is out near the airport. Previous foreign visitors were unimpressed. As is pretty usual in these kinds of situations, I had no time at all to go and see or do a damn thing apart from eat and sleep in the tidy-but-gouging Sheraton hotel a few minutes drive from the venue.
Many archers managed to make some kind of a holiday out of it, in the Eternal City. I didn’t. I had no time before or after. I flew in, saw some ring roads, and flew out. Apart from the excellent coffee, I could almost have been in Coventry. Or indeed, anywhere. I’m not knocking the venue or the organisers at all; it’s got to be held somewhere, and the place had good lighting and mostly ran well. For some reason, we were picked up at the airport in a police van, and shuttled from hotel to venue in a camouflage Italian air force military bus. You don’t get that in Telford. (You don’t get much of anything in Telford, though).
Back to the garbage. For some weeks and months beforehand, despite being in possession of an excellent top-of-the-line Hoyt recurve bow, I had been seized with a curious notion that it would be an excellent idea to have a second setup, a low poundage ‘indoor setup’ with aluminium Eclipse X7s, that would be both forgiving and fun to shoot, all based around the novelty that is the Spigarelli Revolution riser. I spent a large amount of money, an inordinate amount of time, and an awful lot of mental energy trying to make this work. I doggedly stuck with it, working out some of the niggles.
And… it didn’t work. It sounded beautiful, like opening a fizzy bottle of water. The arrows flew straight, after a great deal of help from Mark, my tuning guru. But I never got the bareshafts doing anything consistent (I now know that aluminiums don’t really ‘work’ for bareshaft tuning like carbons). There’s something straight-up odd about the clicker, and there was something wild about the combinations. You could sense with it that in the right hands it could do some damage, but the word of the day was ‘unforgiving’. It magnified errors, like a gleeful, sadistic teacher. My Hoyt sounds clunky and ugly but it is forgiving and far more consistent with carbon arrows.
Regular readers may know quite how difficult I find recurve archery, and how, whatever else I’ve managed to achieve around the edges of the sport, my utterly cack-handed ineptitude around the technical side of it and the deep lack of the discipline required have shamed me for ever, despite the fantastic help I have had and the kindness I have been shown by many people (you know who you are). And I keep telling people I’m not very good at this, and they think I’m being modest. I’m not. I really am atrocious at it, on a performance level at least. Even more frustratingly, there’s kind of a good shot developing. But I do not have the time and I do not have the energy to put the work into making it happen. That’s not an excuse. It’s just reality.
Nevertheless, I keep sticking my head above the parapet. I’ve committed to the stupid bow and I put it in a case and take it to Rome. They say you can only beat who’s put in front of you, right? Well, I was stuck on a target with the big man himself: Oh Jin Hyek, the 2012 Olympic champion, and a couple of very polite and pleasant Italian guys called Tommi and Giuseppe. Our line was the second up at 9am on the Saturday morning. I’d squished in an hour of scrappy practice the preceding evening, and I knew the game was up for putting in a serious score, but I’m feeling OK. I take a decision: I’m here to learn. What, though?
I’m really looking forward to shooting with Oh. He’s been a minor hero of mine ever since London 2012. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to him a few times. I like his pugnacious spirit and his dark, gritty approach to the sport, plus he seems to have a sense of humour. He’s fighting time and years and his shoulders are giving him trouble. He’s just become a dad. He looked tired and haggard on the circuit this year. How long can he hang on in the world of Korean professional archery? Yet he pulled a major indoor win out of the bag in Macau, showing the kind of minor-god form he has always been capable of. I could learn something from him, couldn’t I? Something useful.
So at 8.30, on the line, we are sitting there waiting for him. The next target along is waiting for one of his Hyundai Steel teammates. We do all the pacing and stretching and shaking hands and pre-flight checks you do. The clock creeps on. Five minutes until showtime. What, did they get stuck in traffic or something? On Saturday morning? No. It seems very un-Korean. But he’s not here. No Oh. Oh no. There’s nothing I can learn close up today.
We kick off. Three practice ends. Then I step back onto the line. Top, middle, bottom. Stance. Keep your head still. I draw, it seems good. Anchor seems there. It gets away. And lands about four inches to the left of the top target.
It’s happening again. It’s fucking happening again. I did this all a couple of weeks ago in a similar shed in Stoneleigh. The first arrow on the top face hooks hard to the left. Frequently. Not the bottom faces. Just the top one. Sometimes I manage to drill it. Mostly, it hooks. The little aluminium bastard. That’s not all. Am getting weird up and down errors, which I thought were tuning problems I’d ironed out. Turns out, of course, they weren’t tuning problems. They were me problems. It’s not the gear, it’s the archer. Or it’s both together. Or one isn’t helping the other.
An end or two in, Chris Marsh comes over. They’ve texted Oh. Him and Ku Bonchan and some other members of the Hyundai Steel team never left Korea. They didn’t bother telling anyone. (Hyundai Steel are different from Hyundai Mobis, who did turn up to dominate the women’s line, and Hyundai Department Store, who are another set entirely). No one is quite sure why. It may be related to the complex fallout from the cancellation of the Seoul Open, which needless to say has caused embarrassment and blame across Korean archery circles.
It would have been nice to learn something from Oh, but I suspect would have needed to try and get it out of him over a beer. I cannot think straight. I cannot concentrate, at all. I have spent months horribly overworked and distracted, desperately trying to persuade my brain to do some deep level thinking, to quiet down. I’ve been getting weird shooting pains in my arms when I type, and I do an awful lot of typing. I’m getting them now, writing this. I’ve been getting strange flashes of pain across my shoulders. Because all I ever do is work; and any spare time is spent trying to work out a variety of complicated personal issues. Archery is a tool for self-examination, and sometimes it reveals too much. I have nothing left.
Five or six ends in, I have two misses, with all arrows going way low. I suddenly realise that my sight has almost fallen off. I bought it because I though it looked cool. It still does. But it’s going in the bin. Looking again at the carnage of the scorecard, there’s some half-decent archery hiding underneath the crappy misses and the struggling.
There was one particular flash of joy, one brief glimmer of something worth turning up for; on the back nine, I suddenly have a few seconds of clarity, pull confidently and hard, anchor strong, and get a crisp release. And, of course, the thing pings into the middle of the ten. Because it was right. Because I can do it right. I just seem to be incapable of making myself do it on cue.
I send down the last six just wanting it to be over. Once again, I have plugged in to a major open tournament thinking it will be the spur I need and the impetus to finally put enough work in and hold everything together. Once again: no. But I’ll keep giving it a go. I just don’t know exactly where I’ll draw it from. The well is completely dry at the moment, unless I can change some other things in my life.
I’m not feeling too sorry for myself. It’s good to realise just what you have in the tank. If I don’t know why my arrows are landing on the next face, I do know what I can do about some other things. The tool that reveals. And I’m not ungrateful that I have the money and the ability to go and do these things in the first place. It’s supposed to be fun, sure. The bits when I wasn’t standing on the line certainly were.
So I’m friends with Oh Jin Hyek on Facebook now. Afterwards, I message him. He replies that he can’t make it due to “a sudden schedule.”
Yeah, well, big fella. You’ve gotta show to get the points. I’m going to chalk this one down as a win. 🙂
Thanks to everyone I shot with, chatted to, hung out and travelled with. You were great.