SEOUL: Newsis. Ki Bo Bae: “I’m shooting 450 arrows day preparing for the Rio Olympics. But right now, the national selection tournament is more nerve-jangling than Rio.”
During an interview that took place this 22nd December at Korea National Training Center Archery Field, ‘Empress of Archery’ Ki Bo Bae (27 years old, Gwangju City Hall), a double gold medalist of archery at the 2012 London Olympics and Gwangju Summer Universiade, had this to say:
“The Brazil Olympics is due for next year, but the national selection tournament is first in line. I’m trying my best to cope with the anxiety I get from thinking about all of the talented archers that I will be competing against in that tournament.”
“To take part in this competition is extremely tough. It lasts for 6 to 7 days, so the score of the day is entirely dependent on my condition. I can never lose my focus and tension, and I’m nervous at every moment.”
“When I’m in the national team, I have the tendency to put all of my concentration on the score, leading me to overlook many other aspects of being an athlete: but I fixed all those aspects when I was eliminated from the national team (in 2014)”, stated Ki.
“After leaving the national team, I felt rather refreshed. You’re like a hamster running on its wheel: the Olympic village life kept repeating on an ongoing cycle, from early morning to night. It was very exhausting, so life outside of training was free as free could be. These things actually were good to release all of my energy, and I had a great time.”
Ki mentioned, “For this year, there were many, many shoot-offs in the national tournament. In preparation for this, I also had to work on my shoot-offs.”
The set rule is changing for the team match, with Rio marking its first Olympic start. Due to many matches ending in a draw, a shoot-off in which results an overtime match will be very important. When each player shoots an arrow and a tie is given as the score, the archer who shoots closer to the centre takes the win. Through training simulation, the national team is practicing concentration – and in the complicated selection process procedure around 8% of the total final score will be based on shoot-off performance.
“The Olympics that come every four years may not last long, but it’s not like that for the players. It’s where I’m playing as a national representative, therefore making it a place I want to achieve everything I couldn’t (elsewhere).”
Continuing, Ki said, “In time for winter, I’m spending a lot of time on weight training and fitness-orientated training. With the help of psychological counselling, I’ve also been trying to deal with the pressure increasing as the match approaches.”
When we asked about the struggles of having to train in the bitterly cold weather, Ki replied, “We train indoors where a hole is punctured through a window covered in plastic, which means it’s not cold enough for your hands to freeze up. The environment is organized so that the archers train well, so practicing is pain-free.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: it’s not pain-free for everyone)
Considering that this is Ki’s second Olympic experience, we questioned whether she’s willing to make more appearances in any future competitions. With strong determination, Ki stated firmly: “After Rio comes Tokyo. I want to make it to the Tokyo Olympics.”
At least reading the press, there seems to be a particularly brutal, tough-it-out approach to winter training among Korean Olympic athletes, with temperatures in Seoul only a few degrees above zero. Plus if I have parsed this right, the whole squad are being sent up a freezing mountain again for New Year’s Day – just like last year.
Via this news piece from Newsis. Thanks to Jessica Cho.
So I went to Copenhagen. I wasn’t going to miss that. It’s a beautiful city.
The camera worked. World Archery were kind enough to let me in with the real photographers. I got some shots I really liked, and some I thought would have been great if only I had four-grand’s worth of full-frame camera and glass, and knew just a little bit more about what I was doing. Still, onwards and upwards. I was in the right place for this sequence, anyway. I also got to see the Holmegaard bow, the oldest extant bow in existence, about which more will follow at a later date.
I was originally intending to make a podcast based around the world championships, but after a lengthy parade of technical disasters, I’ve decided not to. The Zoom H2n recorder I bought sounded good and worked pretty well until it didn’t, which was at every crucial opportunity: refusing to save files, batteries draining off despite a claimed 20hr battery life, and featuring terrible handling noise for a hand-held object. (I’m sending it back). A lot of interviews I recorded on the field were marred by too-loud background music, a planned meeting at the museum had to be abandoned after the curator was unavailable, athletes I was hoping to get some words out of stormed off in a fury… on it went. Some of it was my fault, some of it was bad luck, some of it was just dumb and frustrating. I also could only be in Copenhagen for the last four days of the worlds, and I realised a bit too late that to do a really proper job I would need to be there the whole week.
I have always tried to produce (or select) the absolute best content that I can for this blog, and after getting home and reviewing all the audio from the weekend I decided it just wasn’t good enough to do something with. This was despite the American archer Ariel Gibilaro going the absolute extra mile and making a handful of on-the-road recordings for me in the weeks leading up to the championships. She took the time, and I’m annoyed that I can’t follow through with it for her. I will have another try at this next year once I’ve got some more practice with live audio in, and hopefully I can incorporate some of the material that did work into something else.
Back to the sport: the finals weekend stayed dry and bright after some seriously apocalyptic weather earlier in the week, and recurve Sunday brought an almost unparalleled display of Korean dominance. During the week the great white sharks had had to fight some serious battles, but on the big day no-one seemed to be able to bring a game to them, and Sunday did lack a bit of drama compared to the much-harder-to-call compound finals on Saturday. Kim Woojin joined the elite list of double world champions, and didn’t seem all that bothered. But no-one begrudged Ki Bo Bae fighting off the visible stress and nerves to complete what must be the archery equivalent of a career grand slam. She didn’t give a perfect performance, but she gave a fighting one, and it was enough. Afterwards, she said she was just about managing not to cry. That changed when she got to the podium.
There was an ironic moment after the ladies team matches, when the Korean ladies and their coaches sat down in a row of empty seats in the athletes section of the crowd and got insistently moved on by a officious volunteer because “these seats are reserved for VIPs”. :-/
USA men, who lost to a clinical Chinese Taipei.
An incredibly casual KOR men’s team, who didn’t seem all that bothered about becoming world champions.
Kim Woojin in quizzical mood (from earlier in the week). I have about six shots of him pulling this same expression.
After the team events, I took some photographs from the cloisters at the warm-up range behind Christiansborg Palace shortly before the individual finals. This turned out to be a good idea: I could get shots from a great angle and slightly above the shooting line, the afternoon light was starting to look good, and it was all business. No one spoke, just the sound of arrows being launched. You could sense the tension in the faces, the sense of importance, the fear.
Ki Bo Bae
Ki Bo Bae
Ki Bo Bae
Ki Bo Bae… finally.
Venezuelan fans giving it some for their man Elias Malave.
Bye bye, Copenhagen. You were great.
See the rest of my pictures from Copenhagen 2015 here and here.
Thanks to Chris Wells, and a ridiculously long list of charming people I finally got to meet. Thank you!
GWANGJU, KOREA: As with last year’s Asian Games, the prospect of a near-guaranteed medal avalanche on home turf meant that the organisers and the KAA threw every resource at this competition, building a brand new oversize stadium. The home squad didn’t disappoint in the ranking and knockout rounds, and made almost every final in both recurve and compound.
On compound finals day, Korea delivered in spades, taking four of the six golds on offer. Kim Jongho became Korea’s first Universiade triple gold medallist. In the women’s individual gold match, Toja Cerne nearly denied Song Yun Soo in a tight shootoff, but came up a few millimetres short. Russia denied the USA women top honours in a minor upset.
On a sold-out recurve day, the ever-lurking threat of Chinese Taipei was the only major challenge to the great white sharks. The men’s team unfortunately threw down too many eights to do any serious damage to the Koreans, with Lee Seungyun shooting completely clean with six tens – afterwards, he laconically stated: “I think being the last shooter brought out the best in me.” Lee followed up by burying teammate Ku Bonchan 6-0 in the men’s individual final to cap a spectacular 2015 return to form.
However, Chinese Taipei took unexpected revenge in the women’s team final, with a strong squad anchored by Tan Ya-Ting, a multiple World Cup medallist who finished above the Korean women at the top of the ranking round in Antalya this year. The women in blue took the opening set after Kang “The Destroyer” Chae-Young and Choi Misun both sent down eights. Choi leaked a seven in the third set to make it 4-2. Despite Ki Bo Bae finding a fourth ten, they split the points in the last to give Chinese Taipei the victory.
In the individual matches, Maja Jager squeaked past Mei Chen-Hsiung in a shootoff for the women’s bronze. Her second podium finish in two major events (she took silver at Baku 2015) bodes well for a serious defence of her title at the upcoming world championships. For the gold, Ki Bo Bae and Choi Misun contested their third major podium match of the year in a high-quality final that saw every arrow in five sets hit the yellow, with a perfect end from each archer. Despite Choi drilling a staggering seven tens in a row, it went down to a shootoff. Ki Bo Bae edged it out, taking a 6-5 victory to a roaring crowd and doing her bit to leave the home nation sitting proudly at the top of the medal table.
The hardest archery tournament in the world. The Korea Archery Association have finished their yearly recurve selection tournament in Donghae City, a brutal week involving six 70m rounds and three days of head to head shooting – and apparently in miserably cold and rainy conditions, too. The top eight, in order, in each gender are:
1. Kim Woojin (2011 world champion), who absolutely dominated the men’s division.
2. Lee Woo Seok (2014 Youth Olympics champion)
3. Shin Jae Hun (promising Korean cadet in 2008, fallen off the international radar for a few years)
8. Park Mi Kyung (last seen on the international stage in 2003!)
Archers who didn’t make the cut include veterans Yun Ok Hee and Joo Hyun Jung (who has apparently retired), and perhaps most surprisingly, Jung Dasomi, last year’s Asian Games individual champion. There are further warmup tournaments next month which narrow down the eight to a front-line four that will likely contest the big events.
The biggest story of all is the triumphant return of Ki Bo Bae, after failing to make the 2014 squad due to a shoulder injury. She had maintained considerable form, managing to shoot a 1391 FITA last year for her pro team – even though a TV news piece at the end of last year hinted she might be retiring from international archery. Also, Im Dong Hyun, who was slightly in the wilderness in 2014, has achieved a truly staggering 13th consecutive selection for the national team.
Lee Woo Seok. Photo: Xinhua
It’s an interesting mix of familiar faces, veterans and youngsters; the real ones to watch might be the young wunderkindsChoi Mi Seon, who was leading the ranking round for two days,and Youth Olympic champion Lee Woo Seok (who, rumour has it, scored 710 for a 70m round earlier this year). If they deliver this season, who would actually bet against an Olympic medal next year?
I thought I’d seen every dumb thing that longtime TIC favourite Ki Bo Bae had done (or been coerced to do) in the name of sporting publicity. I was wrong. As an Olympic star, she’s one of the faces of the Gwanju Universiade this year, and a little while ago, she had to do this:
But back to archery. She managed to maintain form last year despite being sidelined from Korean national duties (apparently due to a shoulder injury), and has even been filmed recently giving away training, um, ‘secrets‘. Hopefully she’ll be in form enough to be back on the recurve front lines again in 2015. Or failing that: more dancing, I guess? 😉
Ki Bo Bae watch (slight return)… promoting Samsung ultra high definition monitors, with some other sharp-eyed types: pistol shooters, gamers, and whatever that guy in the clogs does. A gigantic multi-national firm using an archer to promote its products? Wow.
It’s a sad day for The Infinite Curve when Ki Bo Bae, reigning Olympic champion, and number two in the world, hasn’t made it onto the Korean squad for this year, after failing to make the top eight during the selection shoot this week. Perhaps even more surprising, Yun Ok Hee, last year’s World Cup champion and world number one failed to make the top eight too. This means neither is likely to shoot in the upcoming World Cup events or the Asian Games this summer. The top eight in women’s recurve included some better known names like Joo Hyun-Jung and Chang Hye-Jin, and the men’s list was pretty familiar. But there’s a big Ki Bo Bae shaped hole in the calendar this year.
It’s always difficult trying to pull information in English off the internet about Korean archers. I don’t think any of us who aren’t in the system have the faintest idea what it takes to get into, let alone stay in the Korean national team – it’s frequently described as ‘harder than winning the Olympics’.
Even via the joys of Korean -> English machine translation, it’s pretty brutal. “Aces are eliminated, the Association recommends always talk [when] the national team players are out. Exceptions, but when you start putting it into a precedent. Principles as the existing players to get the stimulus, can be daunting to new players. Yun Ok Hee, and Ki Bo Bae also a star through such a process.” Ouch.
The fact that the Korean sports press are asking these questions seems to suggest that the archery public are going to miss Ki and Yun, and there is a perception that the KAA should find a way to get them onto the team. It certainly would be a blow to the Asian Games to run a competition without two reigning champions in the ‘majors’. There is, however, a lot to be said for brutal transparency in sporting selection, given the opaque nature of the procedures employed by some archery NGBs and several other sports on a similar ‘level’ as archery e.g. this pre-London 2012 row over taekwondo.
Wrocław. Turns out I’ve been pronouncing it completely wrøng. I was giving it something like ‘rock-law’. The little bar through the ‘L’ (which I now know means that the consonant is velarized) means the pronunciation should be something like ‘vroucksluof‘ – although I have heard a few variations from people who should know. There you go. A little lesson in Polish. ‘Thank you’ is pronounced jenkooyeh and ‘I don’t speak Polish’ is nee-yah moo-vee-yah popolskoo, which should cover pretty much anything else.
I’m at the field by 8am for the mixed team action. My hotel, one of three official ones, contains the Columbian, Indian and Polish teams (and some drunken tennis players). The mood on the bus is thrumming, excited. I haven’t picked up my hideous green ‘TV’ bib today, and I hope no one will notice. I may be in the ‘media’, but I don’t need to be marked out quite that badly.
As the sun rises over the stadium, I watch the team of Naomi Folkard and Larry Godfrey shoot the mixed team event, losing by a point to Miranda Leek and Brady Ellison of the USA. The atmosphere is relaxed. The male/female mixed event is relatively new to international archery, and listening to the archers chat, there’s just a hint that it’s not taken quite as seriously as the individual and team events. After Team GB get canned I give it what I think is a respectful 15 minutes or so and sidle over to Naomi, Larry and coach Lloyd Brown, spying a journalistic opportunity. I start brightly, but get near silence. Grunts. Oh dear. “How do you think it went today?. This morning?” Huge pause. Naomi answers:
“Well… it went… but… it didn’t happen.” Everyone looks at their feet.
“Sorry, just trying to get, ah, something out.”
Larry answers: “Yeah, but it’s possibly not the right time.” He slumps in his chair a bit. Lloyd Brown looks at me like I’ve just trodden in something. This isn’t happening. I consider abandoning it right here and running down the field. No, that would be worse, wouldn’t it? Wimping out of a difficult ‘interview’? Best course of action is to clumsily plough right on, right?
Eventually Naomi Folkard takes pity on me and answers my set of questions about what happens to people when they get knocked out (they stay till the end, cos there’s no refund on the flights), sightseeing in strange countries, why she puts talcum powder under her chin, and what she puts on the top of her tab to build it up (Plumber’s Mait). I leave them my card and get out of there. Note to self: leave any sportsmen at least a week after they get knocked out of anything before trying to get any questions out of them.
I wander over to the practice field, which is heaving with archers of all hues, including, buzzily, all the Koreans.. The women are wearing their ‘coolie’ hats, which look spectacular in the sun. There’s a few archers who are definitely knocked out of every event still practising, though. Heads down. The Australian squad have changed into denim shorts. Lee Seungyun, the youngest Korean on the men’s team, shows me his tab, with interesting trimming and an extended reference-y bit on it reaching back past his wrist, a classic bit of Korean arcana. People are busy. Today is the compound eliminations followed by the recurve and compound eliminations to the semi-final. It’s a long day.
Both John Stubbs and Danielle Brown, two of the UK’s finest para-athletes, make it through the compound eliminations. I tweeted this picture of them which I took almost immediately after they had been knocked out of the team event. That’s British spirit for you. This leaves four Team GB athletes including Naomi Folkard and Alan Wills in the running for an individual place as I wander out for lunch into the suburbs of Wrocław. On the corner of this bright field, awash with carbon and nylon and hope and misery, there is a curious cave-like and silent pub, brown wood and darkness, which serves lunch and perfect Polish beer, tart and tall and very very cold in this sunshine. I’m the only one there. There’s no drinking going on at all, what with alcohol being a banned drug under international rules. When I get back the mood of the whole field has shifted, this being the final stage of individual eliminations. There’s a tension in the air, a sense of worry.
If you’ve never seen an archery tournament before, this is how it works. There are strict lines across the field, only the archers may stand astride the ‘shooting line’ when called by the clock, their coaches must stand behind the ‘equipment line’ a few metres behind. I am allowed, for some reason, onto the ‘photo line’ in the no man’s land between the two. The coaches usually stand with their eye pressed to a small scope trained on the target; most archers cannot see what they have scored at seventy metres. Some coaches bark, some suggest adjustments, some just give thumbs up and moral support as necessary, plus clock countdowns if the time is ticking. All the Korean coaches look and act like particularly strict nineteenth century schoolmasters. It’s the way. Most squads have to share coaches. Team GB have one between six recurvers. The Koreans have one coach each. This tiny nation has long been dominant in international recurve archery, and took three out of the four gold medals at London 2012. There are myriad reasons why, but one that is increasingly clear to me is that they just work much, much harder than everyone else. Teams which have started working just as hard have started achieving similar results. People are tweeting me to take pictures of their bow handles, trying to find out the secrets. Taking a Korean scalp in an international tournament remains an achievement that will gain you respect in this world like nothing else. The other athletes are even proud just to shoot against them.
One of the problems with the sport at this level is that the performances often come down to one or two arrows. One or two, of the hundreds of thousands an international archer will release over his or her career. A head to head round at the Olympics might be over in six minutes, a little longer here. You have spent tens of thousands of hours perfecting the art to focus it all on this point, and pray that you are not found wanting. Or worse; that the wind will blow away your hopes like the djinns. Luck. One or two ‘bad’ arrows, to sink the ship you have been sailing for years. You can see the fear in people’s faces. With the apparent exception of the perpetually smiling and apparently talismanic Aida Roman, who greets almost every passer-by on the field with joy, there isn’t much sense of play. Finally, the field is allowed to shoot a couple of ends of practice arrows at the competition targets. A sense of relief. The waiting is worst.
Unfortunately, all four Team GB athletes get canned in the 1/16. John Stubbs goes out to Choi Yong Hee of guess-where. I leave ‘Stubbsy’ ten minutes after his match, and bound up to him as he is packing up and try and ask him some questions. I never learn. To my surprise, he answers my “How did it feel?” somewhat differently from the recurve team. Straight back at me, he says: “I’m proud of myself, to be honest. I could have just turned up and been rolled over. Hopefully people will take note of disabled people and realise it’s a level playing field. I’ve been doing this since 1997 and it’s my first World Cup.” What a guy. I end up having a lengthy chat with Stubbsy, Becky Martin and a member of the staff whose name I forget about why recurvers should practice with compounders, expensive bowstands, Korean archery bootcamps, bow finishes, the hierarchy of hotels (guess who is in the best one), Pringle flavours and much else. Only the GB women’s team are left in it now. The whole squad will have to sit in Poland for the next three days regardless. That’s gotta be a drag. Loved ones and jobs be damned. You’re stuck here watching other people shoot for the medals.
I watch Ki Bo Bae’s second match against Ksenia Perova of Russia, when Ki is shooting next to Oh Jin-Hyek. They were a couple last time I checked. Neither of them even look at each other once in two whole matches. Not once. I am assuming that means they’ve split up, and presumably badly (or they’ve had a massive row, at least). She wins, entirely as expected and immediately sits down looking like someone has just shot her dog. It’s tough at the top.
The accompanying music on the field today has gone from a bit weird to palpably insane. During the individual 1/8 the ‘DJ’ plays between ends a bagpipe version of Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You. The staggering display of world class talent that is the recurve semi-final, in glorious dipping sunshine, the beautiful pings and rolls and arrows arcing across the sky is done to the tinkling background of the ghastly Locked Out Of Heaven by Bruno Mars, almost, but not quite, completely faded out. I seem to be the only one who has noticed, everyone else is in their own little special interest zone. The worst kind of music as noise; as filler, as aural wallpaper, no thought given. Music could be used differently as a cue for spectators and archers alike, as a mood setter, as something to create an experience unlike going into the bloody supermarket. This was one of the most jarring aspects of the competition for me; if World Archery want the sport to expand, gain more exposure and sponsors and spectators, this is something I think needs addressing. I mean, they could start very simply. You know, by not playing a bagpipe version of Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You.
The sun gleams brighter and lower. I can feel it on the back of my neck. There’s less and less people on the recurve field and more and more of them are Korean. Eventually only Alejandra Valencia spoils the party by winning a shoot off – seven out of the last eight recurve archers in the semi-finals are Korean, including all the men. You can feel a slight collective sigh at the return of the script for the denouement. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is.
But Alejandra is fantastic. Electric. Her shot cycle seems to draw up power from the centre of the earth. Nothing is wasted. It all goes down the range. She feels the fear and does it anyway. There is a serenity about her work to an outside observer, although God knows what is churning inside. She is as inspiring as she is inspired. More than ever today, archers looked lonely out on the field. Difficult. Afraid. Fearing themselves and their own abilities.
In the men’s compound, astonishingly, three men have shot a perfect round of 150. Fifteen arrows all landing in the ten ring at fifty metres. Sergio Pagni of Italy and Dominique Genet of France both have 150, and have to shoot off for a place in the final. Genet goes first. He looks through his scope, and gives an utterly Gallic shrug. It’s a ten, but Sergio’s ten is nearer, and twenty Italians roar. Pagni is in yet another final, and cements his position as one of the greatest compound archers of all time, whereas Genet becomes the first archer in history to lose a match despite shooting nothing but tens. The 150 rounds are becoming more frequent at international competitions. Perfection is the new standard.
Ki Bo Bae and Ok Hee Yun will face off for the women’s gold on Sunday, and Jae Wang-Jin and Lee Seung-Yun for the men’s. In recurve archery, many nations have tried, but all but one have failed. The relentless effectiveness of the Korean recurve machine, notorious for 1000-arrow-a-day practice routines, has been proven again in spades*. Practice out your fear. Practice away the djinns. Eliminate your fragile self from the doing, the execution. If you can.
* [FRIDAY EDIT] at least until the women’s team final, anyway…
More detailed news here. Live scores here. Finals this weekend. Special thanks to Maciej Laba.