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.