SATURDAY 25th JANUARY
This, the largest indoor archery event ever held in the UK is being held in Telford. Of all places. The four stages of the archery indoor World Cup are held (in order) in Shanghai, Marrakech, Telford, and Las Vegas. One of these things is not like the other, as even a slightly bemused BBC Midlands crew points out on the Friday night. It reminds me of the “London. Paris. Peckham.” painted on the side of DelBoy’s van. Telford International Centre is a huge shed dumped beside an A-road and used for all the events that matter; Ultimate Dubs, Scale Model World, and the snooker in November. Now it’s being used for something important; and over 900 archers from 40 countries have turned out.
By the time I reach the venue, we are already in the fourth qualification stage of four: sixty arrows, recurve and compound, men and women, recurve and junior – although a couple of brave souls are shooting barebow, and one guy is shooting a horsebow with wooden arrows. Whatta man. The top 32 in each category go through to the eliminations. This tournament is completely open; you are free to turn up and make a score that challenges the greats, if you can. You can almost smell the intense concentration required, as well as the dejection from less vintage performances.
I’ve been trying, but I can’t think of another sport, anywhere, where you can just pitch up as a rank amateur and get to perform literally next to the world’s number one, an Olympic medallist, or a world record holder. All these things happened in Telford. You can run in the same city marathon as Haile Gebrselassie, but they don’t let you start next to him. Many other sports have open competitions, but the top people usually get a bye through. Here, you get to play with the best in the world, straight out. Disabled archers on the same field as everyone else. There’s something magical there. I wander the forests of carbon with my camera, finding joy and disappointment in equal measure.
Eliska Starostova, a friend now on the Czech national team is sponsored as an archer by her ‘other’ club Fujian White Crane Kung-Fu. Despite the heroic and (usually) positive sporting associations the general public have with archery, many traditions think of it more as a martial art; a discipline. Kung-fu and archery. It’s a good match-up. Self-discipline. Inner strength. Eliska beat one Naomi Folkard to win an indoor tournament last year. I watch the screens nervously as qualification wraps up while her name hovers around the cut line. Frowning with concentration, she ends up qualifying 26th in women’s recurve. Safety. The work has paid off. The gilded names go on, the vast amateur field get another shot at a second-chance tournament at some ungodly hour the next morning.
In the women’s recurve, a juggernaut arrived last night. Team LH from Korea; five archers, in identical uniforms at all times, no English, terrifyingly good. LH are full-time professionals, sponsored by the state housing company. They took five of the top six spots in qualification, out of ninety-eight top women archers from all over the world. It’s a bit like Real Madrid suddenly pitching up in League 2. The utter dominance of Korea in recurve archery, reinforced in spades over the last couple of years, has become a cornerstone of the international sport. As someone says to me, “I’m just glad they didn’t enter the men’s team. Or their compounders. Because we’d all have been f****ed.”
As the head to head competition starts, the focus narrows, and the thousand-yard-stares come out. With no wind or rain and the short distance involved, the indoor scores at this level are so high, that the winner or loser can be decided on basically “who blinks first.” Who is the first to shoot a nine rather than a ten. If your opponent can and does score thirty for a three-arrow end, you must be able to do the same. The set system allows for limited opportunities for catching up an error, but the fact remains that international archery competitions are brutal. Brutal on the nerves, brutal on the psyche. Your odds of making the final table are tiny. Poker fields. Over the PA, the results of matches are announced, the fallen are a who’s-who of big names. The world champions. The ones who get featured in the programme. (And Eliska, unfortunately, hammered by a German archer in the 1/16). In barely more than ten minutes, all that work is over.
Aida Roman and her coach watch each end back on video immediately after she finishes shooting it. She ends up beating her former coach, Song I Woo, who is one of the few archers on the line who looks like they are enjoying themselves.
I watch the quarter-final between Brady Ellison and Thomas Faucheron of France from a prime seat, a slow, ferocious battle. Brady is the huge star here. He has an immense presence on the line, slow, immensely relaxed. This Olympic medallist self-describes on social media as ‘a country boy who just likes to shoot his bow’. He spends most of the time when not shooting besieged by autograph-hunters.
Brady’s shots seem so strong, so still, so relaxed, that I wonder how he can be beaten. Faucheron holds and holds and holds (usually a road to disaster) yet somehow still manages to pull out the tens. It comes down to a one-arrow shootoff. If the preceding competitive segments were brutal, this is an even nastier weapon. Faucheron wins it, by millimetres. Brady sighs just a little and adjusts his cap, then congratulates him. Next day will be painless.
SUNDAY 26th JANUARY
Chris Wells is the communications director for the EAF. Why Telford, Chris? “Because we’ve used the area before, we saw real potential in the venue, there’s good transport links, hotels on site, plus we got excellent feedback from the archers who’ve been here before (the Back to Back tournament).” All excellent reasons. But unfortunately, it’s still Telford.
Great God, this is an awful place. One of the more famous 1960s new towns, it was created by municipal parthenogenesis, when someone decided to legitimise the existence of a bunch of Shropshire towns and villages by birthing a shopping centre in the middle and uniting them all in joyful retail. A few miles to the south is the bucolic Ironbridge, cradle of the Industrial Revolution and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But here is just the urtext inflorescence of Crap Britain, a vaporous hell of Wetherspoons and Costa, an ring-road Erewhon, a post-war concrete conurban fantasy guiding all to worship at the crumbling temple complex in the middle – which now has an Asda. Deserted on a Saturday night at 9pm, you can’t get from the “town centre” to the International Centre on the pavement – they’ve ripped it out and haven’t put anything down. You have to struggle through the muddy verges or take your chances on the A-road. Everyone in local hotels is turning up with muddy shoes, including me. Telford: the town that makes Slough look like Florence. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, that: “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” When you get to Telford, there wasn’t anything there in the first place, but someone replaced it with f**k all anyway. Perhaps if you hurtle round the ring road fast enough you can achieve escape velocity from this Travelodge of a city.
The other half of this festival is devoted to trade, held in the hall next door. All the big archery manufacturers and many of the British retailers have taken a stall here. Most things are pretty familiar, so I decide to look for things which are new(ish).
New Fivics risers in pretty colours. Korean glamour.
Win & Win have started producing compound bows, with the usual attention to simplicity and excellence coupled with joyfully peculiar translations.
Shibuya stabs in awesome bright colours.
I spend a good deal of time talking to René Velarde Rast (above) of Aurel Archery, based in Germany, a man manufacturing some beautiful quality carbon arrows. He is gradually working on a business model based on excellent quality, personal service, and strong relationships with pro shops. Whether he can seriously challenge the Easton machine perhaps depends on long-entrenched attitudes changing; the product is obviously excellent. He is focussing entirely on target archery; no broadheads and skull penetration figures here. I would love to get a bunch of his shafts and piles down to my club; we are currently working collectively on putting together tricky components like bowstrings ourselves, and arrows are one of the more difficult elements of archery to get right (in London this is not helped by a complete lack of archery shops). Seizing control of the means of production, and reducing the import duty on American arrows would help. Rene is also producing aluminium and, uniquely, wood laminate shafts for traditional archers (below). Good show.
I meet up with some of the other London archers and we rattle around the place, waiting for the denouement. I meet Patrick, the hazy genius behind Uukha. I watch a BBC ‘Road To Rio’ TV crew desperately try, with Songi Woo’s help, to pull some quotes out of the Sphinx-like Koreans. After the junior finals have been completed, the main hall is closed off and turned round. We have been promised a special show for the big finale. Lights. Smoke. A show producer from Vegas has been pulled in. Broadcast engineers. The compound archers ‘headline’ this show above the recurvers, in a reversal of the usual order of events. I ask why. The focus is apparently being put on ‘on-the-spot-accuracy’, with tension and cameras and the like, and the inherently more accurate bow is taking centre stage – it should be noted that the main sponsors are also quite compound-oriented, too. They were hoping for more national BBC coverage, but it’s a difficult sell without some Brits in the final.
The show is indeed a show, designed for the room more than the TV. Aida Roman is first up in the bronze medal match, and she’s amazing. There’s a steely look to her shooting. A more ruthless competitor. If I’ve watched the Olympic individual climax a thousand times… There is no mistake here. She wins looking like a rock star. (If you are really bored, you can watch the feed and see me scurry out to take the picture below.)
After that, the Korean women put on a masterclass in form for the final, which goes to two shoot-offs. It’s not so much that they look effortless; it’s more that the technique is so ingrained that it looks more natural. It’s learned, like everyone else. It’s just better. The scores, as I check them later, would easily challenge the recurve men. Perhaps the missing media link is just that; remove men’s and women’s classes: totally open competition. I wonder if that’s an idea whose time has come.
All-American chisel-jawed superman Levi Morgan takes the bronze in men’s compound, and when asked how, says he ‘prayed real hard’. It’s about this time I notice the slogan in very small letters underneath the headline sponsor’s logo plastered everywhere. The joys of international archery; the frankly strange cultural clashes, the variety of people and stories united in a common goal. The festival has worked. The big show has come off. It wasn’t perfect, and there’s a way to go, but everything appears to be going in exactly the right direction. It was an event. Where does it go from here?
All pictures by me (except the one of Aida Roman post-release by Dean Alberga). All rights reserved. If you want to use them, ask me nicely.
Special thanks to Chris Wells. Was great to meet @StratfordArcher, @archeryashe, @martin_evans and the like. Cheers.
Stay tuned for an extensive interview with Patrick Huston, hope to bring you that tomorrow.