Tokyo 2021: not out of the woods yet

13 April, 2020


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.

^ Choi Misun (KOR) at the Rio Olympics, 2016

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.”

PAYING UP

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.”

^ Rio 2016, fan village

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?

MOVING ON

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.

SPORTING HEADACHES

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.

THE NEXT 18 MONTHS

^ Poster for the cancelled 1940 Olympics. Source: Wikipedia

From a glance at the IOC’s blandly business-as-usual website, you’d think everything was just fine and dandy. You may not have noticed, with everything else going on, but the Olympic Flame was officially rekindled in Olympia in March and transported to Japan, where it is currently (and incongruously) being held in a ‘secret location’, to ensure crowds don’t gather in front of it.

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.


wheels: not back on

1 March, 2020

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.

View this post on Instagram

❗Long post ahead❗As some of you have noticed I was at #TheVegasShoot and shoot in the flights. I wanted to let ya’ll know I only did this to prove to myself I could do it without feeling terrible, having bad anxiety or having a panic attack and because I needed a short vacation. This unfortunately doesn’t mean I’m back at shooting at all. My life is looking alot different now and I don’t have the time for it in the moment. Neither do I want to get back to shooting. To say I don’t miss it at all would be a lie but I need to go another way with my life right now. So for now I’m back studying and using all my energy and time there instead. 🤓 But I’m happy to say I’ve never felt as good about my shooting and a competition as I did in Vegas. Everything was way more controlled than its ever been. This was a huge milestone for me and just prove how far I’ve come on my road to recovery and that quitting archery was the right thing to do. I’m way more in peace with myself and calm without archery and everything that evols it. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to go back to shooting and dealing with everything and everyone that comes with it without letting it affect my health. I’m a sensitive person and I take many things way to personal and let it affect me way too much which in the end got the best of me. It’s something I have to deal and work with and it’s just not possible for me while shooting… I wanna say a big thank you to all the people who’ve reached out. Your loving and encouraging words mean more than you’ll ever know! And I encourage you to keep reaching out to people in need! It saved me!❤️ I had some amazing days in Vegas with @danielle_reynolds531 and actually got to see and experience Vegas but that’s it. I am sorry I didn’t get to see ya’ll but one thing at a time. Maybe one day I’ll be back but for now it’s all only for fun and I’ll take things as they come. #RoadToRecovery #NewAdventures #TheTruth #AllTheFreakingDrama

A post shared by ➷Sarah Holst Sönnichsen➹ (@sarahholstsonnichsen) on


Archer Of The Decade

9 February, 2020

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

Mike Schloesser
^ Antalya 2018

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

^ Odense 2016

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

^ Pic: World Archery

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. 

^ Samsun 2018

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.

To requote Sid Waddell: it is said “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Lopez is still only 24!”

1. Ki Bo Bae

^ Odense 2016

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.

^ Rome 2017

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.


‘From child bride to gold medallist’

10 December, 2019

Pic via Bangladesh Olympic Association

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.

From https://bdnews24.com/:

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.

Star Wars archery

26 October, 2019

So it seems that the upcoming Star Wars film The Rise Of Skywalker looks set to feature some #badarchery, with a character called Jannah, played by British actress Naomi Ackie, wielding a bow as part of the Resistance. This image came from a piece in Vanity Fair earlier this year.

Obviously her form is pretty horrible, but that’s par for the course. Perhaps it was just for the photo shoot. We’ll see what happens when the film comes out and if they’ve put any effort into making it look real. Not that it needs to be real. Just hopefully not actually stupid.

The bow is kind of interesting. At first glance it looks a little like a camless compound bow with a shoot-through riser, as found on a few target and hunting bows, e.g. this model from Bear:

But looking a little more closely it looks suspiciously like one left-hand and one right-hand recurve riser glued together. Risers are distinctive, and with thanks to everybody on my Facebook page who contributed, we even found out exactly what. It’s a pair of Initech 2 risers, sold by the Decathlon group – a chain of French sports stores found across Europe. They sell a variety of cheap own-label Chinese archery gear, and an Initech riser is yours for just €50.

So Jannah’s ‘energy bow’ really does appear to be just a couple of these epoxied together, with some ‘limbs’ stuck in the end (possibly broken off, reversed real recurve limbs?), some extras, and most likely an elastic string (if most other Hollywood archery is anything to go by). It’s even clearer if you look on this Star Wars ephemera website:

Pic courtesy: https://starwars.fandom.com

Still, I found myself enjoying the chutzpah and inventiveness of the props guys for sticking a cheap left hand and a cheap right hand together and coming out with something suitably steampunk and interesting looking – even if it saved them the bother of designing something from scratch. And maybe when the film comes out, it’ll all make some sense. Is Jannah going to be a heroine up there with Katniss? Who knows? But she’s going to hurt her elbow doing *that*, that’s for sure.

Ki Bo Bae: still competing, but for how long?

11 September, 2019

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.

Ki bo bae with baby

World Champs / European Games 2019

7 July, 2019

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:


Experimental Choi

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

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.

Lei Chien Ying

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. 

GBR celebrate their bronze
Jyothi Surekha Vennam
Khairul Anuar Mohamad
Lisell Jaatma

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.

Pit Klein

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. 

Mikey, Gilles

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. 

Yesim Bostan

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. 

Pablo Acha and Steve Wiljer shooting in the grimmest rain. I took this in the press centre. I mean, I’m not going out in that. 
Veronika Marchenko

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. 

Mauro Nespoli

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. 

Full results from the Worlds here. 

Full results from Minsk here.