Antalya has been and gone, and for archery fans, was a far more gripping spectacle than Shanghai. Holding the competition a few weeks earlier than normal spares the peleton from the beginnings of the worst of the summer coastal heat, when temperatures of 40°C are not unknown. A steady-ish 28°C is about the limit of what you can sit outside all day and still function at the highest level (that’s me, not the archers) and it turned out that you can do a lot of special things when everything is just right, as the recurve qualification results came in on Monday afternoon, just as the sun started dropping behind the stadium, as the light started to spread.
I’m watching the scores come in like boats returning to harbour, and two names: Kim Woojin and Kang Chae Young, are consistently above the red line that indicates the world record average. And they stay there. I run to the men’s end of the field with cameraman Gwenael to get the story. Woojin had been shooting one of the most extraordinary back nines ever. He needed 59 from his last six arrows to break his own world record, set in similar warm, still conditions at the Sambodromo. His teammates knew it, and began taking the piss as he went up to the line. Ron van der Hoff was kind enough to sit on his scope and called them for me.
First arrow is a nine. Woojin’s face twitches. That slightly quizzical look he’s good at. Second arrow… is a nine, and he rolls his eyes. It did and didn’t mean something. No world record. I see the next arrow, which is clearly shot like he couldn’t give a **** where it ends up. He basically throws the last end away, and it’s still a 352 for a total of 697, which would match the fourth highest score in history. And he’s pissed off.
We run back to the women’s side, where Kang Chae Young isn’t choking, not for anybody. I watched two of her earlier ends. She looked relaxed, but in a curiously placid way. Just accepting the result. No emotion. Just process. And quick. At one point she was seven points above the world record average.
The finale isn’t dramatic, and ‘just’ a 57. But “The Destroyer” has – very quietly – annihilated the world record. She looks as surprised as everybody else. Her scorecard is relentlessly consistent. Relentless consistency is Chae Young’s stock in trade, and relentless consistency is rewarded in the Korean system, which filters potential frontline teams via multiple gruelling selection tournaments, prizing stamina over flash-in-the-pan brilliance (she rarely finished top of any one day, but didn’t ever finish bottom either). And on this rather lovely afternoon, the least diva-like, most unassuming member of the squad pushes the women’s world record to within 1.3% of the men’s mark.
It wasn’t Bob Beamon’s long jump, but most archery things that are truly remarkable by the sport’s standards are done quietly. It’s something when one of our greater sporting achievements in the last few years is achieved by someone who includes ‘making soap’ as one of their hobbies.
The record that Woojin matches, the fourth* highest ranking round score in history, was shot by Brady Ellison in Shanghai in 2016. Brady Ellison in Antalya in 2018 is not happy. Despite qualifying well, the painful finger problems that have dogged him over the last season and sank the boat in Vegas and Yankton are still there. How are your fingers, Brady? “I’m ready to quit!” he snarls at me. “I’ve shot 100 arrows since Shanghai.” He’s told me (and many other people) several times over the past few years that he intends to quit recurve and return to shooting compound.
But recently, the double-bowing at the Gator Cup and his apparently endemic injury issues seem to indicate he might be serious. If he did, it would leave USA recurve in an even more parlous state, to say the least. I don’t think I’m out of line by saying it’s not looking very strong in depth right now, two years out from Tokyo. There is a lot of work to do to get two USA teams qualified next year.
The rest of the qualification rounds are relatively unremarkable. By the time Friday rolls around, the glorious sunshine has given way to thunder and rain, soaking the first couple of rounds on Baki Beach, a few miles further down the coast than the normal venue, which is being reconstructed. The Korean men take clinical, disciplined revenge on the USA for Shanghai. It’s an incredibly controlled, classy display. The USA’s cause is not helped by Braden Gellenthein, anchoring, who has decided to shoot a brand new bow. Which he set up last night. And seems to be only capable of shooting nines. He falls apart, and Kris goes with him. It’s carnage.
Then Yeşim Bostan finally breaks her ‘silver medal curse’ and wins on the beach, in front of deafening home support. It’s no secret that her attempts so far have been sunk by terrible performance anxiety; her qualification rounds have been clinical, but on a stage, she’s had trouble – e.g. this shootoff arrow in Rome, if you can bear it. There was only the tiniest hint of the same nerves on the beach, although she didn’t make it look easy. I think now that she’s got past that, the rest of this year may bring some serious silverwa… some serious titles. (I also think Tan Ya Ting might go on a winning run when she finally takes a major gong). The day finishes with a horrible gold match between Mike Schloesser and Kris Schaff that neither of them, apparently, want to win. Compound at its most neurotic and depressing.
Recurve Saturday brings bizarre winds, and endless second guessing. I took some pictures. The wind is coming from the sea, but the arrows are posting to the right. Also, the way the venue is set up gives a kind of optical illusion to the horizon. Archers seem to be leaning to compensate. The local crew have done pretty well, but it’s pretty difficult making a completely flat arena on a sloping stone beach. Almost a field archery problem. Germany’s women, once they get going, are only narrowly beaten by Korea, who are barely better.
The GBR men take a deserved medal against Malaysia, helped along by the collapse of the Malay second shooter. The Brits had to change their flight as they were booked to return Saturday; ArcheryGB apparently deciding that it was unlikely that any of them would make a final. I’ve long mulled over the financial and psychological ramifications of doing this. The team looks good. Seems like there must be better options available. Then Japan’s men push Korea’s men hard, especially in the last two sets. The result is as expected, but something seems to be in the air.
Turkey thump Chinese Taipei in recurve for a bronze. It’s a stunning coup really. They deserve it. They outshoot them. Then the real upset comes, as Japan sweep aside Korea for mixed team gold. Hyejin looks exhausted. There’s something in her face, waiting to go on, that says she doesn’t want to be there. Like, she’s had enough. Japan look great, Korea look bad.
Then Lei Chien-Ying, who seems to be de facto captaining the Taipei women these days, looked incredibly confident and dominant in her dismantling of Lee Eun-Gyeong. Probably, quietly, the performance of the day. Watch it again. She knows she’s going to win. Two losses, and she walks back on like she has it won anyway.
When Perova walks on, you could sort of sense the repeat of Mexico waiting to happen, and after the first end, you pretty much knew it was going to. I’ve written before about Perova, and her brutalist approach to archery; her technique is ugly, but effective, and she seems to be utterly free of any self-doubt whatsoever at one crucial moment: whenever she steps onto the line. It may be a Russian cliche, ‘do or die’. But it works. And so it proves. It’s a scrappy, dreadful match really, and by the denoument, you just knew the shoot-off was only going one way. Perova defends her title, and Korea have lost three recurve finals in a row.
Chang just looks glad that it’s over. The Korean Archery Association, in their infinitely opaque wisdom, have decided that she and Woojin are the mixed team this year, not basing it on ranking round scores like most (but not all) archery nations.
The problem is that if she has to pull a triple shift like today – team, mixed team and individual – the familiarity of the arena is outweighed by the exhaustion of maintaining focus over such a long day of shooting, outdoors, in the heat, with all the noise and expectation around you. It’s a lot of weight on some very tiny shoulders.
The day before, So Chaewon had had to pull a quadruple shift: team, mixed team, individual and then make-up retouched and back out to accept the Longines prize. A lovely problem to have, but the poor girl was sitting with her head in her hands by the end. It’s more work that it looks.
The day finishes with the Korean men putting on a masterclass, and a showcase match of almost sublime quality between Lee Woo Seok and Kim Woojin. The sight of three white shirts on the podium rather smooths over the fact that Korea lost three in a row. I twice watched an assembly of archers and coaches from [major archery nation] cheering loudly when Korea got thumped. You felt the actual quality hadn’t gone, but the big Asian and other nations that can match them in technique must be emboldened. Their knack of just winning seemed to desert them.
It remains, of course, to be seen whether any of the other Asian squads will be able to ‘do the big job’ and snatch gold in Jakarta. But some of the spell seemed have gone away by the end of the day. Korea will be absent from the Salt Lake stage. Which means Berlin will be very interesting indeed.
So many other things I could tell. Which [famous archer] ‘forgot’ to do their media interview, and left the venue, despite the interview having been pre-sold to [name of TV channel] in [country] and had to be ‘recalled’ by a rather important member of the archery community? Who got involved in a thrilling altercation at an airport? Which [gender] team from [major archery nation] finished Saturday pounding so many beers by the Rixos pool that two of them had to walk one of their very unsteady coaches back to their room? But unfortunately, I’m bound by the same rules that apply to bands: what happens on tour, stays on tour. You’ll just have to wait till I see you next. 🙂
*This originally said that it was the third highest score in history. Thanks to Nick Taylor-Jones for pointing out that the third highest was Kim Bubmin’s 698 at London 2012, unfortunately and unluckily overshadowed by Im Dong-Hyun breaking the record with 699 at the same event.