So I wrote another head to head piece for World Archery just before the last World Cup stage of the year. Enjoy!
So I took up an offer from World Archery to come and work on their communications team for the Antalya leg of the World Cup circuit. I wrote up stories: writing, helping to write, assisting or otherwise having a hand in most of the news stories you can see on the front page of worldarchery.org during the events. I grabbed quotes, facts, and the odd picture. I wrote some of the features and previews. I got to work with an amazing and amazingly professional team – Chris Wells, head of communications; Didier Mieville, head of marketing; Matteo Pisani, head of making everything actually work, and Dean Alberga, capo di tutti capi of archery photography, amongst many others. I had a incredible time, although it was pretty full-on. Immersive archery media.
It’s not my first World Cup – I went to Wroclaw last year for a couple of days, which you can read about here and here – but it was my first trip on the inside. This isn’t going to be a full narrative account, and I can’t spill all the beans. This will be more like a handful of memories. (There are plenty more of Dean’s spectacular pics on the smugmug page, too)
Choi Bomin during official practice.
In 1990, after losing a penalty shootout at the (football) World Cup, Gary Lineker said “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” In international archery events, it sometimes seems like you need a similar quote: “500 people fling arrows at targets for five days, and at the end, the Koreans always win.” Except they didn’t. But things changed.
Antalya nestles snugly at one end of the Turkish Riviera on the Mediterranean, protected by the Toros mountains. A port town for over 2000 years, it has expanded wildly since the 1970s to be one of the largest tourist destinations in Europe. Three hundred sunny days a year, apparently, and we are going to get five of them. After an amazing preamble trip to Istanbul with Ms. Infinite Curve, I am treated not just a sea view, but a mountain view too at the smart Rixos Downtown, sat midway between the qualifications field and the beach where the finals are held. Things are looking good. I have a uniform to wear and have been provided with a variety of World Archery blue shirts, khaki shorts and trainers, courtesy of Fila, one of the main sponsors.
Reo Wilde: officially inspected.
By the time I get over to the practice session, the sun is starting to drop. On the qualifications field, we have an air-conditioned Portakabin where we can generate data, stories and dreams and distribute them to the outside world, via a satellite internet connection and wi-fi that will end up creaking under the strain of hundreds of tablets and phones all over the field hitting refresh twenty times a minute. Matteo and others have developed an incredible system for generating real-time data for archery tournaments, and the demand for it is insatiable. Data, scores, news and pictures. We must provide.
When Korea warm-up, so do their coaches.
The main archery field, owned and managed by the Turkish Archery Federation, is squashed between two giant building sites and a housing estate on prime land near the beach – I get the feeling it won’t be around in a few years, in a city that is seeing rapacious development. Today is qualification day, also known as the ranking round. We are on the field early, and get to watch the recurve teams warm up. Running on the spot, flailing arms, you name it. Although everyone is watching Korea, anyway.
Everyone is always watching Korea. When the KAA decide not to send a recurve team to a World Cup event, the competition feels incomplete. The biomechanical approach to recurve shooting has long been exported along with dozens of elite coaches to all parts of the globe – but now the cultural and style elements, like the distinctive sunhats and the team warm ups, are starting to spread up and down the line, too. Everybody wants to grab a little piece of the magic. The Danish ladies team, with current Korean resident Maja Jager, have developed their own warm-up – a touchier, feelier version of the Korean routine:
At the end of the recurve session, I get quotes from man-of-the-moment Florian Kahllund, the young German archer, and for the first time encounter the perennial problem of sports interviewers: trying to eke something interesting out of someone who isn’t keen on saying very much. He has indeed said everything that needs to be said on qualification day by placing fifth out of 127 men, ahead of the reigning Olympic gold medallist and the reigning world champion. “I know I can shoot these scores in practice, but I’ve become stronger mentally over the past few months.” Can you tell us how, Florian? “Not really.” OK.
I speak to Dasomi Jung of Korea. Of the four women in their recurve squad, she has finished seventh, with her teammates taking places one, two and three. The Korean translator, the immensely helpful Mr. Choi, calls her over, and she gives me an unmistakeable oh-alright-for-fuck’s-sake look as she answers my questions with a bored tone – but she does gives some interesting information about why the Koreans went to Medellin, and why they went there a week early:
“It was the first time we had competed in South America. There is a huge time difference between Medellin and Korea and we needed some days to adjust to the jet lag. Since the Olympics will be held in South America in 2016 it was a good opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the environment. We’ve competed many, many times in Antalya already – so we don’t worry too much about (getting here early for) the competition here.” Familiarising yourselves for the Olympics two years early? Really? “Yes.”
The mixed team eliminations follow. I grab quotes from Peter Elzinga and Erika Jones, both of whom are well-familiar with the media, and the awesomely cocksure Jayanta Talukdar who has clipped the Korean pair to make the gold medal match. I’m starting to notice who would be a good interviewee and who wouldn’t. It’s going to make life a lot easier.
Individual eliminations day. The archers are ferried from the hotels to the field in a fleet of coaches and minibuses. It’s actually only a couple of hundred yards from the hotel, but getting there on foot requires crossing Antalya’s main motorway with eight lanes of screaming traffic. I try this once, a terrifying real-life game of Frogger, and swear never again. The bus schedule is rather elastic and the Korean team have hired their own minibus for the week. This morning me and Chris manage to get a lift in it as it is ferrying Lee Seungyun, the 19 year old world champion. Yeaaaah, we special now. The badges on his chestguard apparently say ‘Lee Seungyun’, ‘No matter what’ and ‘Win it’. (thank you Vanessa Lee).
Yasemin Ecem Anagoz, in her quarter-final match.
The individual eliminations, as archers go head to head according to their seeding in the ranking round, are brutal. You can smell the fear. The wind has picked up and the djinns are blowing around, ready to destroy months and lifetimes of work. Everyone ducks deep inside themselves, trying to banish the lurking doubts and allow their unconscious to do the work. Everyone here has done what needs to be done – put arrows into the ten ring at 70 or 50 metres – thousands of times, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times. But can they do it on cue, in competition, with the capricious Mediterranean winds and the fears gurgling in the stomach? Can you do it now? Right now? Many big names take early baths, and I have to tread delicately amongst the stars.
“It was the wind.” I hear this a dozen times today, as I gently try to interview the fallen. Unlike most other precision sports, outdoor archery has a random variable, a roll of the dice. The wind is both a meddling god and a useful boogyman. Today, I actually believe everyone who says “it was the wind”, but later I wonder how many matches were really lost in the lift, in a hotel room, in baggage claim, in the moments of doubt that can strike anywhere.
Aida Roman is knocked out by Tatiana Segina in a shoot-off, where she held and held and held in a manner reminiscent of *that* shoot-off in London. Can I ask you a couple of questions, Aida? She barely whispers: “Yes.” The steel confidence displayed indoors at Telford and Nimes earlier this year was a million miles away. She is polite enough to give me “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose” platitudes, looking like a ghost. I feel awful. Much was expected of the Mexican ladies’ team outdoors this year, but so far they haven’t shone as brightly as expected. It’s the gulf between expectation and reality that really stings.
Best interview of the day went to Oh Jin-Hyek. I’m excited. The Olympic champion. The World Cup Final champion. The ‘Soft Drink Pig‘. The unconventional shooting genius has had a bad day at the office, beaten by Takaharu Furukawa in a rematch of the men’s individual final from London 2012. He stalks off the line, rattled, barking at somebody. A short while later I find Mr. Choi, and ask to speak to ‘Mr. Oh’. He looks at me slightly alarmed and says: “Are you sure?” Excellent. This is going to be a doozy.
We head for the Korean camp: as the sun is setting, he lumbers over looking like he wants to do pretty much anything else than answer my questions. I open with a fairly standard: Can you tell me how the last match went? Mr. Choi translates. And Oh starts talking… and talking… and talking, avoiding my eyes. Mr Choi keeps trying to stop him, but on and on he goes, and I suddenly realise he is really talking to Mr. Choi. He is justifying things to him, not me. He rattles on for at least ninety seconds, and finally stares off into the distance, grumpy.
Mr. Choi pauses briefly, and says. “He was mostly happy.”
I try not to crease up laughing, and eventually manage to tease something out about rather un-Korean ‘equipment problems’ (to cut a long subsequent story short, he was unhappy with his arrows). How are you going to clear your mind for the team eliminations tomorrow? He finally looks at me, and I see a flash of the pugnacious ego inside. “It will not be a problem. It was just the equipment.” I can deliver the goods anytime, sunshine. You can read what we wrote about it here.
In the compound eliminations, Choi Yong Hee of Korea makes it to the gold medal match – a first for the country, and a warning shot across the bows. In Dean’s picture (above), he lifts his bow to the setting sun like some kind of bizarre, Wicker Man-type ritual is about to happen. The destroyer.
Team eliminations day. Compounds and recurves on the same field at the same time. Previously the field was separated by bowtype, now they are separated by sex. The men go first, and I flip between watching the two USA teams.
The recurves didn’t have a great ranking round, and their seeding meant they faced the tough Dutch squad in the first round. They lose 6-0, with Brady Ellison slamming his bow down at one point in frustration. Both USA compound teams, by contrast, breeze through the brackets into the gold medal matches. For most archers, the team eliminations is their last throw of the dice – after this, there is nothing to do for three days until the flight home but sunbathe and reflect on what might have been. There’s a kind of poignancy as people pack up their bows. A lot of wistful stares.
A word about coaches. They come in all shapes and sizes, all manners, all styles – the generals in the field, the technical managers, the in loco parentis. But in competitions like this there’s always a strange point where they are left behind, when the horn sounds and all the archers walk off to collect their arrows and score, and the coaches are left standing around an empty half of the field. The powerful suddenly become powerless, neutered, functionless. A bit lonely. Until the athletes come back and they suddenly spring to life. The eternal cycle.
(Except the Korean coaches. They sit down and get back up again).
It’s noticeable how many of the coaches in the top teams are deeply protective of their charges, and how hands-on many of them are. I suspect ‘hands-on’ is exactly what is required, thousands of miles from home and loved ones.
Today I got to meet the Japanese recurve team, who have managed to make four medal matches, and are the most successful recurve nation behind Korea. They are friendly and helpful, and I type up a feature piece about them as the field empties (there is another piece on the Easton website). In Japan there is a high school archery program, separate from the elite level coaching, which funnels talent into the system. Some high schools are publicly known for the quality of their archery coaching, and Hiroshi Yamamoto, an Olympic medallist in 1984, remains a household name, which has helped keep Olympic archery higher in the public consciousness than in other countries.
After the close of play here, the focus moves to the finals arena on Antalya beach. We all troop down to help set up and set the stage for tomorrow. I go to bed at 10pm completely shattered. We are all putting in 12 hour days or more, although it never really stops. You are constantly in the bubble. You are along for the ride.
Compound finals day. The individuals preview piece is here, and the results pieces are here, here, here and here. The World Archery team suddenly doubles in size with TV crews, commentators, technicians and athlete herders along with everyone else. The finals are on a tight clock, two sessions a day. Me and Chris are doing the same things, only faster. I am the new guy, everyone else has been here before. There is a deep sense of professionalism.
The women’s compound final features some unfamiliar names. The Russian Natalia Avdeeda has been on the women’s circuit since 2009. She was up against a sixteen year-old girl from Iraq called Fatimah Almashhadani. That’s her in the above picture with the head of the Iraqi Archery Federation – who also happens to be her father.
Fatimah has been shooting compound for barely two years, but she left a trail of devastation on the Friday as she dispatched multiple World Cup champion Jamie Van Natta, 15-arrow world record holder Sara Lopez and reigning World Cup Final champion Alejandra Usquiano in individual qualification. It’s a bit like the trail Boris Becker blazed through Wimbledon in 1985, except it wasn’t a wunderkind prodigy from a rich nation with a strong sporting history, it was a shy girl in a headscarf from a country presently tearing itself apart.
Her shooting is a joy to watch, incredibly relaxed. Unlike a lot of grizzled pros, you can tell just how much she still really, really enjoys the physical act of shooting an arrow. With strong support from the local Turks in the audience and a vocal home contingent, Fatimah leads the match up until the very last end when the scores were tied, but unfortunately she sent down an eight and two nines, and the experienced Avdeeva took the match. (You can watch it here.) She looks horribly downcast at the loss, but from the reaction of the Iraq team, you would imagine she had won the gold. As for me, I find myself willing her to win for the whole match, because that would make a better story. Four days of this and I seem to have crossed some sort of journalistic threshold.
She speaks some English, and her father translates the rest: “I wasn’t nervous at all last night, but when I got to the final competition my heart started going faster. It was difficult to control my body. I was having to aim off and I found it hard. I was shooting fast, but I like shooting fast, because I am more focused. I had a dream last night, I got to the competition and we were shooting with the USA.”
Her sister Rand is in the national recurve team, and got a wildcard to London 2012 where she shot against Ki Bo Bae. “I was in the Iraqi recurve team, but decided to take up compound as a new challenge. I love shooting compound. My first coach was my mother. She taught me recurve. My current coach is Majid Ahmadi who was on the Iranian national team.” Mr. Ahmadi, a former World Cup gold medallist, shakes my hand about fifteen times today. He’s great.
“I have to thank coach Ahmadi for everything, really. He has been selfless for me and the national team. Iraq is a dangerous country, and he has fought for Iraqi archery like a citizen.”
I look down at her arrows. Two of them in the quiver have the nocks broken off… just like mine. It turns out that most Olympic sports programmes in Iraq are still in disarray – or worse. Her father says: “(In 2006) the president of the Iraqi Olympic Association, the secretary general, president of the handball association, volleyball federation and many members of the IOA, were herded and gunned down together.” The training conditions are challenging, too: “There are very few archers in Iraq – perhaps only 150. We don’t have any outdoor fields for archery at all. We have to find quiet areas, there is just one area in the north of the country where we can do an outdoor training camp. No shade, no grass. I sometimes practise in the back garden in Baghdad but that is only ten meters.”
She goes off to more photos and more acclaim from the ‘home nations’. But the expression on her face looks pained. She looks like she wants nothing more than to get back out there and have another go. There’s a shy 16 year old there, with the will of a total badass. She’s my new hero.
In the men’s individual competition, Choi Yong Hee of Korea takes an individual gold. He shoots confidently, swaggeringly. It’s effortless. The win is also a loud warning shot fired around the archery world, and the warning is this: Korea intend to dominate compound archery exactly as they dominate recurve archery. The famous strength in depth of the KAA machine, with a huge base of second-tier recurve archers who already have a strong mental game and who could be persuaded to switch to compound, seems set to take over. The great white sharks are coming. They’re already here.
Podium pic (by Chris Wells)
Both USA compound teams finish with silver medals, in what has long been the their strongest event and an expected gold. Two of the men’s team manage to muster a smile on the podium, but by their own high standards, this shoot has basically been a disaster for the USA.
The working day finishes a little earlier, although with finishing our write-ups it lasts a bit longer. When you are having a conversation with a Belgian, a Nederlander, an Italian and another Brit about the minutiae of archery technical scoring in a gaudy hotel bar with ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ tinkling in the background, time flows in mysterious ways.
I get up at 6.30 and go for a swim in the Rixos’s completely empty pool. The hotel has been sparklingly good for five days. The world outside the bubble seems hazy, unreal. It’s been good to focus on this one thing and almost nothing else – has made me realised how distracted, how scatty I can get with the usual day to day nonsense. I haven’t shot for a few weeks, but it feels like I have. Like my brain is in gear. It’s my last day here.
(The great white sharks. Photo: Dean Alberga)
It’s almost all Asian nations contesting the recurve finals today, with only Florian Kahllund of Germany representing Europe, and not a soul from the Americas. The women’s team events are a straight re-run of London 2012, featuring many of the same names, with Japan facing Russia for the bronze and Korea versus China for the gold – although the Olympic results end up being reversed. I try and get some quotes out of the Chinese team afterwards; their translator is unhelpful and the women look at me like I’m from Mars. We finish the piece and move on to the men’s team, where the Korean men do what they do so well: winning, and easily. There is a slight grit to the performance after the women’s team only took silver. They are making sure.
In contrast to the Chinese, the Koreans are gradually opening up to the media. For years, you could get little more out of them except “I shot well, it was good, I was proud to shoot for my country.” (In fact, Chris instructs me to strike the phrase “I was happy” from all quotes generated from winners. “Everyone is always happy!’) So it is surprising to hear Oh Jin-Hyek talking about ‘weaknesses’ in the team – even if the ‘weaknesses’ he is talking about may not be the same weaknesses everyone else talks about.
With my new blue uniform I am actually getting the tiniest of respectful nods from the Koreans. The smallest of head nods, not quite a bow, but some kind of acknowledgement – and better than the glares I was getting last year. But I notice how the Korean coaches treat Juan-Carlos Helgado, the senior events director – he gets a nod approximately two inches deeper. They know my place in this lineup.
Having spent a few days watching the Koreans, I am increasingly convinced that they are deliberately maintaining a brand, and playing up to the image they have created of slick professionalism and machine-like dominance, because this serves a purpose: sowing fear amongst other squads, and maintaining the air of unbeatability.
Korea – supporting
But they aren’t a machine. They are beatable. They cheer, cry, lark about, chat and decorate themselves, everywhere but the shooting line. They laugh – a lot. They love the attention. But the great white sharks make sure to maintain their reputation, even if they don’t always catch every fish. I’m sorry to leave the bubble, and the glorious sunlight, and all that staggering talent. It’s been like nothing else on earth.
All photographs are by me unless otherwise specified, and are © 2014 The Infinite Curve.
There were many people I’d like to thank for this opportunity and making me feel so welcome, but especially:
and George Tekmitchov.