An San of the mighty South Korea team
An San of the mighty South Korea team.

It was a national holiday on a Monday, and despite the drizzle, you might expect a large crowd for this Tokyo2020 event in Yume no Shima, where some of the best archers in the world gathered.

Steve Wijler of the Netherlands 3
Steve Wijler of the Netherlands

It was day 5 of an 8-day event as part of Tokyo 2020’s series of “Ready Set Tokyo”  test events, which will continue until the middle of next year.  But as it was a test event, spectators were not invited. Thus,  the grounds seemed empty, a smattering of competitors, coaches, officials and media meandering in and around the area of competition.

No Spectators
No Spectators invited

In July, 2020, the spectator stands will have been constructed and these grounds will be packed with people. But during this tournament, the primary purpose is for world-class athletes to test the newly opened facilities in a competition format.

Mariana Avitia of Mexico with coach
Mariana Avitia of Mexico with coach

The site on Yume no Shima is one of only 8 permanent facilities built for the Tokyo 2020 Games. (Twenty five of the 43 venues required are existing sites, while another ten are not permanent, to be dismantled after the Games.) The main area for the archery competition is made up of two long lanes where two competitors face off, aiming for the yellow bulls-eye 70 meters away.

Judging the Results
Judging the Results

Archers marched in with a guide holding their national flag. The judge greeted the competitors. The arrows were launched and brought back to the archers by a person on a motorized scooter. And strangely enough, the music in between competitive moments was hugely dominated by tunes from Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. “The River” seemed strangely appropriate.

Denchai Thepna of Thailand
Denchai Thepna of Thailand

With a year to go before the Games, the landscape is still raw. Sponsor signs, which you will not see during the Olympics, were boldly displayed. And the lack of people created a somewhat somber, lonely atmosphere. But it is another step in the incredibly complex logistical nightmare that is the Olympic Games, and as far as one could tell, all seemed to be proceeding without incident.

The Arrow Bearer
Staff shuttled the arrows back and forth between the targets and the shooting stage.

“Next year the Olympic Games are here in the same venue and now it feels like we’re starting the Olympic process,” said Chang Hye Jin of the dominant South Korea team, double gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I expected the weather conditions here in Tokyo to be very hot and with strong wind. But there’s no wind and the temperature is low, so that is good. Before the Olympic Games, this tournament gives me a chance to get experience in this field. I can learn the wind direction and get used to the environment.”

Below is what an arrow traveling 240 kph looks like when shot.

All photos/video taken by the author.

Korean Rio Archery Team
South Korea’s Archery Team for the Rio Olympics Korea’s team comprises recurve men Kim Woojin, Ku Bonchan and Lee Seungyun and recurve women Choi Misun, Ki Bo Bae and Chang Hye Jin.
Nothing like an Olympic Games to get a nation to focus. And when South Korea was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, the National Olympic Committee and Korean Government drew a bullseye on archery.

Over the past 7 Summer Games, South Korea has won 18 of 28 possible gold medals, whether individual or team, men or women. In fact, the South Korean women’s team has won gold at every Olympics since 1988.

This is not luck. This is a significant investment in identifying archery talent early, and developing the strongest archers so that the pool competing for international competition is deep. This is how the BBC explained the South Korean archery talent machinery.

Koreans are introduced to archery at primary school, with talented children receiving up to two hours training a day. The less able are then weeded out at middle school, high school and university level until the very best are hired as adults by the company teams run by organisations such as car manufacturer Hyundai.

Korean Kids Archery

Approximately 30% of the Korean Archery Association’s (KAA) budget comes from the country’s Olympic Committee, but the main financial strength of the system is from these 33 company teams who provide a wage and a pension to archers employed solely to compete for them.

Here’s how a former South Korean archer explains the intense competition that yields world champions.

With so many top class archers around (back in 2004, a non-Korean archer who was ranked 5th in the world had the same competition record as a Korean archer placed 90th in the country), no one is guaranteed a victory or a spot in the national team. Many former gold medalists have been struck off a year or so later because others (and some of them newbies) have surpassed them in ranks. It’s a sport where seniority really doesn’t matter at the end of the day, allowing for true competitive spirit to flourish.

Apparently, the sport of archery is expensive – a single arrow costing around $40. And because archery in South Korea is so well funded, their archers can spend all their time sharpening their craft. Again, the former archer describes this world-class level of dedication.

The sport is also very well-funded, and athletes really get to focus on what they do best. This means that they practise like machines. The 2012 London Olympics women’s team said that they shoot 500 arrows a day. As far as I know, Ki shoots with a 40 pound bow. Obviously I’m a bad point of comparison, but I am pretty much done for the day after shooting a double Portsmouth (120 arrows) with a 34 pound bow.

As it turns out, only one person from the 2012 London Games will be returning to the 2016 Games, Ki Bo-bae, who won gold in the women’s individual and women’s team competitions. The rest, you can bet are the best of the Korean up and comers.

Any sure bets for the Rio Olympics? South Korean archery is looking like a bullseye.

Ki bo-bae portrait
Ki Bo-bae at the London Summer Games

Kristie Moore five months pregnant
Kristie Moore of Canada who competed at the Vancouver Olympics while 5-month pregnant.
Health officials in several countries stricken by the Zika virus have given their female citizens an unprecedented warning: “Don’t get pregnant.”

That’s the first line of this New York Times report, the advice that basically assumes a possible connection between the Zika virus in pregnant women and deformities to their children.

I can only imagine what women planning on visiting areas like South America, or female athletes planning to compete in Rio this August are thinking. Should I stay or should I go? If you are pregnant, and planning on going to the Rio Olympics with your family, you may want to reconsider your decision. Of course, no athlete would go to the Olympics if they were pregnant.

But apparently, that is a naïve assumption, for there have been quite a few known cases where women athletes were 1 to 3 months pregnant, and were not aware until after the Games. But three in this list of pregnant Olympians were at least five months pregnant when they competed:

  • Kristie Moore of Canada, who won a silver medal in curling at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics,
  • Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, who won a gold medal in individual dressage at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
  • Cornelia Pfohl of Germany who had been in early pregnancy when she won bronze in team archery at the 2000 Sydney Games, but was an amazing 7 months pregnant when she competed at the 2004 Athens Games.

Anky van Grunsven Athens
Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands competed while 5 months pregnant at the 2004 Olympics.
Van Grunsven in particular has had a stellar Olympic career, winning a total of 8 equestrian medals, including three golds in individual dressage, over six Olympics, from 1992 to 2012. In November, 2004, only three months removed from the end of the Athens Games, she gave birth to her first son, Yannick.

Clearly, the Zika Virus should be giving women, who are pregnant, pause. But the Olympics come only once every four years. Who knows what stories Rio will bring.