In May 2015 I went to the first stage of the 2015 Archery World Cup to work for World Archery, reporting for the website and interviewing athletes. This is a personal account of what I got up to. You can watch the finals, read the news pieces I had a hand in, and check the results here:
I already put a lot of the better photos up here, and there’s more on the Facebook page.
All photos are © The Infinite Curve. Contact me if you want to use them.
Shanghai goes on and on and on. Long before you reach the actual city itself, you fly in over a flat, repetitive landscape which is entirely man made. Smallholdings, vast canals carving up tracts of land, and factories. This is the manufacturing belt. Most of the world’s consumer goods are produced within fifty miles of Shanghai. Just with what I have in my bag on the plane, it looks like I’m taking my headphones back to see their ancestral home, and my camera lens. And my MacBook. And my iPhone. Probably the chargers, possibly the pens, probably the bag fabric if not the bag. Probably at least half of my archery kit. It’s all made here.
I am driven in from Pudong airport with most of the Brazilian recurve team, an hour on the road through an immense grey sprawl. Our hotel, one of two housing the archery circus, is a 90s curiosity with a gaudy lobby maintaining a grandiose, marbled air of communist-era theatrics. The main tower goes up 42 stories, and in my room on the 39th there is a Blade Runner-esque view of the Pudong district at night. To the north is a vertical jumble that stretches to the horizon, and everywhere, everywhere they are still building, for countless miles in every direction. It makes the London development boom look like a man considering a new shed in B&Q.
The archery world cup has seen a permanent edition here in Shanghai since 2009 and will be here for at least another five years; it is now a defining part of the series. The story starts again tomorrow.
Official practice day. Glorious sunshine. The athletes and staff are ferried from the hotels a couple of miles to the Yuanshen football stadium in a fleet of coaches, buses, minivans and taxis. Driving in central Shanghai is a furious, honking jungle where only drivers who sharpen their wits survive. It’s like driving in Rome with even more smoking. Luckily our driver has the sixth sense necessary to make a left-hand turn across six lanes of traffic with mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians flying in all directions.
Once inside, there is an entire World Archery staff and ten judges to fit out with brand new uniforms courtesy of sponsor FILA, and the media room resembles a branch of Sports Direct shortly before Saturday closing. Next door is the technical and scoring room, maintained by Matteo Pisani and his mostly Italian team. They have coffee in there. We also need to re-photograph every athlete and coach on the field for accreditation. There’s a lot of work to do.
Once in in my spiffy new uniform, my job here is to report for the World Archery website, and specifically, interviewing athletes. I work under Chris Wells, the head of communication; for the first few days, we split the work – I mostly do recurve and he mostly does compound. The days are long, and it never really stops. You end up dreaming about it.
I am also taking a lot more photographs these days on my own account. Shortly before leaving I invested in a second-hand Tamron 70-300mm telephoto zoom, which is giving me better results than I expected. When there is nothing dramatic happening, getting out on the field and taking photos is a way of shaking things up – not only can dicking around with a camera be a good way of ingratiating yourself with people, it can be a generative act in itself. If you can find something interesting in the frame, it might be interesting as part of the narrative of the event too.
However, I realised a long time ago that there is no point in trying to replicate what Dean Alberga is doing; I don’t have the talent, the equipment or the extensive personal access that he has built up over the years. More to the point, I don’t have the remit – that’s his job. So I try to look for other things, shapes and lines, odd moments, and often things not at full draw. My photography is improving, although I am still amazed at Dean’s reaction time and his ability to deliver such amazing work so fast. It is by standing on the shoulders of giants that I manage to get one of my pictures used by the Korean Archery Association, and another, later in the week, by ArcheryGB.
I am working through a jet-lagged fog for the first couple of days, and it’s difficult to concentrate. (I’m not the only one – I see archers asleep all over the field for the first couple of days). A decent night’s sleep proves elusive all week, and we all make frequent runs for energy sustaining treats. I have never worked on any team with a sweeter tooth, and the parade of hot chocolates, cream buns, ice creams, cheese cake and sugary Chinese delights that appear over the course of the tournament would make a diabetic hyperventilate. And who would have guessed that one of the Colombian compound team was a fully-qualified dentist?
The ranking round itself. The shakedown. It’s a bit like going through the education system – it’s not necessarily going to dictate your fate in life, but it’s really likely to.
The Korean women are here. The rock stars. These people are gods. Everyone wants a photo with them; volunteers, staff, judges, coaches, other athletes, security guards. I manage to restrain myself. This time.
Today, lucky me, I get to talk to a astonishing list of athletes. I get to talk to men called Brady, Crispin, Taylor and Reo and women called Maja, Deepika, Aida and Bo Bae. I talk to Asian Games champion Esmaili Ebadi. I talk to Brazilian wunderkind Marcus D’Almeida, who has been feeling the pressure. I talk to the extraordinary Zahra Nemati. I talk to several of Team GB, who are not having the best meet. We talk to the interesting squad from Bhutan at their first world cup.
The stadium gets floodlit after 5pm, lending proceedings an unreal air. A lot of hopes are dashed. All that work, and what to show for it? There’s a lot of frustration in this world. Over the course of the week I get to hear a mountain of bitching, several official “no comments” on the subject of coaches, well-known athletes describing other well-known athletes as “f**king shit” and “that greedy f**king bitch”, and a great deal of incredibly salacious and occasionally entirely scandalous gossip about everyone and everything in elite archery. I would love to be able to share it all with you, dear reader, but I can’t. I’ve been in bands long enough to know that what happens on tour, stays on tour. Them’s the rules. Although you could sum quite a lot of it up as: not all the scoring takes place on the field.
Individual qualification. The top 8 in each discipline are byed through two rounds. In recurve, this includes seven of the eight Koreans, and the first couple of rounds, from some angles, look like a sideshow until the doors of the shark cage swing open.
Today I get to interview former Chinese national archer Zhang Juan Juan with the help of our local fixer Alex. She won individual Olympic gold at Beijing 2008, beating three Koreans back-to-back on the way. She’s good fun, clearly experienced at fielding media questions, and has the relaxed air of a sports champion who will never have to buy a drink again. (You can read this interview here).
As the competition closes up, with recurve and compound on the field at the same time, it’s hard to keep track of what is going on and Dean, Chris and myself run around furiously trying to keep up. With the big screen only cycling information every couple of minutes, you rely on other things. I mean, you can tell by the way Aida Roman walks off the field whether she’s won her match or not. As it becomes clear that there is barely a crack in the Korean recurve machine, interest and athletes drift away. I watch the carnage continue and chat to the sharp and fascinating Bernado Oliveira of the Brazilian team, who has had a great run today.
Work wise, we are having trouble with the creaking Chinese internet, which falls over every few minutes like a clattered-into-bowstand. The scores aren’t updating fast enough. We need access to the databases to get anything down, and most of us have to use a VPN to leap The Great Firewall Of China, which adds an extra layer of tedium. Matteo and the rest of his team are late every night fixing technical niggles, swearing in Italian. The Iranian squad bring us a gift of a huge sack of roasted pistachio nuts seasoned with ras-el-hanout, the shells of which soon cover every inch of the media room. Most nights we miss our hotel dinner working. There’s not enough coffee. It’s a hard life. It’s not, really. I wouldn’t have missed today for the world.
Team rounds. Compared to the previous days, they don’t take long. It’s the last stage of competition before the finals, so unless you’ve made those, that’s it for the week. Those last two points. That one arrow that just hates you. Most teams at these events are booked on unchangeable flights, and have to sit around for two to four days before heading home to jobs and families. Options are pretty limited: train, sightsee cheaply, support teammates who have made the weekend finals, and always: wonder what might have been.
After the weekend’s shooting has been decided the production team heads for the finals field on the picturesque waterfront. We are all crammed into two tents by the immensely busy Huangpu river, the busiest river by traffic in the world, across the way from the Bund. Not a minute goes by without a low-in-the-water freighter carrying aggregates or a ridiculous gaudy sightseeing boat going past, and the foghorn blasts reverberate for five whole seconds back and forth across the water. The Shanghai bells punctuate things frequently. We run through a technical rehearsal in torrential rain, with some unlucky lads from the Singapore team having to stand out there and shoot in the pissing gloom.
For some reason the Korean coach has agreed to my request to interview the women’s team. I have hurriedly got a long list of questions translated into Korean on paper (thank you Jessica!), the list is a mix of philosophical and slightly more personal; we have been trying to ‘open up’ a few teams to add more depth and colour to the coverage. “Is perfectionism a positive aspect or a negative aspect?” and “When you are away at a tournament, what do you take to remind yourself of home?”. Not many archers are used to this kind of thing.
In the evening, I wait nervously in the lobby. At the appointed time Ki Bo Bae, Chang Hye Jin, Kang “The Destroyer” Chae Young, Choi Misun and Mr. Kim, one of the six Korean coaches out here, all troop down to the hotel bar, all dressed in black, eyeing me slightly suspiciously. I sit there with four of the greatest target archers in the world, and turn my recorder on. It turns out they have all read the list of questions I helpfully provided in advance and are fighting amongst themselves to answer them. Ki Bo Bae elbows me in the ribs when I ask her “What do you like to spend money on?” There is a lot of laughing and it ends up going pretty well, with a stark moment from Chang Hye Jin, who answers my question about heroes like this: “Hero? What kind of hero? Like, my own hero? God. God is my hero.”
I just got elbowed in the ribs by Ki Bo Bae. I JUST GOT ELBOWED IN THE RIBS BY KI BO BAE.
Compound finals day, aka ‘Compound Saturday’. We open for business at 11am. It’s hot. The sort of muggy weather that makes nylon stick to skin. I am sat next to the local Chinese crew member responsible for the video screens, who spends most of the next two days asleep with his head on the desk. Still, I have an excellent view of the line and don’t even have to stand up to take a decent photograph of right-handers. The Swiss TV production team, who communicate in French, take up most of the room, although English is the lingua franca of everybody working. Everyone has a vital job to do. There are no spare cogs in this machine.
Last time I was doing this gig in Antalya I managed to walk in front of a TV camera whilst trying to get some dumb photo for Twitter and deservedly incurred the terrifying wrath of Marion, one of the TV producers. I decide to make sure there is absolutely no chance of doing this again and avoid the field of play entirely, so going back and forth to the production tent involves a long walk round the main stand and then chasing athletes up and down a long stretch of waterfront. There’s a lot of walking-and-talking. I must have covered about five miles a day. Also, I start interviewing athletes on camera for the Hit The Roof team, instead of just getting audio. The Korean and Japanese men are better friends than I imagined. Lee Seungyun speaks English, but doesn’t like to *ahem* talk about it. This is all very strange.
Of many highlights today, I get to speak to Dominique Genet, veteran French compound archer. A man with a face that looks as if it was carved out of granite. A man who ends up taking home a 16th world cup medal. A man who answers all my questions with an entirely Gallic, utterly disinterested shrug. He’s awesome.
Recurve Sunday brings with it a ratcheting up of everything we already had on compound Saturday: more people, noise, media, volunteers, VIPs, gladhandling, sunshine, and things to do. The crowd is such that the seats are filled an hour before kickoff and people are thoroughly annoyed at being locked out.
As the Korean National Championships unfold, we are relying on a mix of the ever cheerful Mr. Kim and remote audio translation (thank you Jessica!) to get as much as we can out of the squad. We can barely get the Korean athletes to the media zone in time for an interview before they have to get them back on for another match – or a medal. The mens team get clipped by Japan in windy conditions, giving us our morning story. Ki Bo Bae is a big star here; her name, announced twice, gets the biggest roar of the day. The sole Chinese team to make it to the weekend, contesting the less-glamorous mixed team bronze match, unfortunately fail to medal and have to face a angry-looking local media scrum.
Unfortunately, the display of Korean dominance doesn’t make for great theatre. By the time it gets to the women’s individual final, you can sense that the energy has gone out of the crowd a little. Teammate battles are never that exciting, but the day has several other great matches to recommend it. It’s a privilege to watch this close.
There’s a bit in the rather corpulent Korean national anthem that sounds like the last verse of Once In Royal David’s City including the descant. I have now heard it enough times to be able to hum along. As the last medal and Longines watches are handed out, the media wing of the tent begins a race against time to file the stories, photos and video before the entire production is entirely torn down around our ears.
Night falls. People leave for flights. The flightcases are filled, we leave the waterfront shortly after nightfall, and go for pizza and rather more than one cocktail. The gaudy boats are passing back and forth, and the skyscrapers are glowing bright. Trade is good. Shanghai will survive without us for another year.
There were many people I’d like to thank for this opportunity and making me feel so welcome, but especially:
Tom & Nathalie Dielen
and Cécile Dagbert