The news that Oh Jin Hyek is not just back on the Korean team, but back in an Olympic team, is all-round fantastic.
Not just because a former Olympic champion still has what it takes to make a Games, nine years on from London 2012. It’s less surprising in pro archery generally, where careers are longer. But in Korea you invariably have to fight for that place against multiple world champions; young, hungry, experienced internationals, and that uniquely local product: high-school kids who can shoot you off the park before they even have to shave every day. It’s always a much bigger ask.
It’s a much-quoted cliche (which this writer has been thoroughly guilty of deploying) but the Korean trials are the most difficult recurve tournament(s) in the world. To make the Olympic team, you have to shoot lights out, every single day, over five separate gruelling weeks. Jin Hyek has remained consistently near the top of the standings almost every single day he has been out there. He didn’t sneak in. He didn’t edge it. There have been no doubts about the quality of his performance.
But Oh has found the motivation to push himself through the interminable trials process in the face of excruciating shoulder pain which would have caused lesser men to retire and enjoy their individual Olympic gold (and team bronze). According to him, all four of his rotator cuff muscles are trashed. He was intending to retire in 2020 anyway, so the story goes. One more bite at the cherry. One more go-around.
It’s not so well known, when he wasn’t quite at the international forefront in the mid-2010s, that he almost made the Rio team as well. As quoted in Bow International in 2017:
“During last year’s national team selections [for the Olympics], I just needed an 8 to win the match and make the team. I ended up shooting a 7 and we ended up going to a shoot-off, which I lost in the end. It was terrible, the biggest regret of my life. I was furious. I decided to change my arrow nock and vane colours that I had used from the start and changed some of my equipment setup. I wanted to throw away everything I’d had previously and start again. “
Behind the big grin, a hint at the vicious competitive streak, just like his fellow London 2012 winner – and former romantic partner – Ki Bo Bae. The sense of unfinished business. (He’s been individual second twice in the World Championships, in 2011 and 2013, and has mentioned it more than once.)
He wasn’t always the gritty archery super-heavyweight we know him as, of course. Once upon a time:
“When I was younger, I did archery because it was fun and I just enjoyed shooting. I didn’t have any ambitions. In high school, at a certain point in time, as I began shooting a bit better and won a few medals at national competitions, I started to become a bit more ambitious. I wonder if I would have done better if I had had those ambitions when I was younger. I liked playing with my friends too much when I was younger and if I had done that a little less I wonder if I could have done just a bit better.”
So not one of those hyper-focused athletes then, for whom gold medals are the mere byproduct of executing a perfect plan and a perfect program. The normal guy. Maybe.
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But easily the most significant piece of awesome with Oh is his age; he is 39 years old. When he competes in Tokyo, he will be just a couple of weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
The Korean men’s team will be going in as favourites, even if nothing is guaranteed and plenty of teams might upset the apple cart. If he managed to take another gold medal, it would make him the oldest male archery gold medallist in the modern Olympic era, and the oldest medallist since the remarkable achievement of Hiroshi Yamamoto in 2004. (He would not be the oldest of all: Doreen Wilbur was 42 when she won gold in 1972, and Hubert van Innis was 54 when he won an avalanche of medals in Antwerp in 1920).
But just as the victory of Chang Hyejin in Rio destroyed received wisdoms about height and poundage, the career of Oh Jin Hyek has proved that unconventional form and age are no boundaries to the biggest prizes of all.
Ultimately we love Oh because we can project ourselves onto him. An athlete nearing 40 who doesn’t look much like an ‘athlete’. A family man. A fan of chunky gold. (The sort of chunky gold that makes me wonder what he drives.) A man who shoots compound like… this. A man who, shortly after making this year’s Olympic team, for the last time, at the highest level of ability, posted a pic on Instagram of his(?) fridge, packed full of his favourite neatly arranged beer.
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You want to believe. It is possible. You can do it. You can make it all the way. The everyman with the painful body and the responsibilities and all the beer did it. So can you.
(And, of course, I beat him at the Rome Archery Trophy back in 2018. Sort of. Kinda. Have a read. Gotta show, dude. Gotta show. ) ■
Read more about Oh here.