South Korea’s history in Olympic archery is amazing. Don’t believe us? Consider this: Korea clutched the gold medal in all four categories – men’s and women’s team and individual – at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Still not convinced? Overall, South Korea’s archers have won 39 Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold, and they’ve won every women’s (recurve) event since women’s archery joined the Olympics in 1988 at Seoul. And did we mention the Koreans outnumber the second-ranked gold-medal winning team by 10 medals? Ten! Kia Motors said it right: “Korea. It’s Amazing.”
So why is South Korea so consistently dominant in archery?
1. Let’s start at the beginning.
Korea’s military use of bows and arrows dates to the 5th century B.C., when its archers shot from horseback. The bow remained the main long-range weapon until Japanese invasions in the late 1500s.
Gakgung, the Korean bow or “horn bow,” was a reflex model made from wood and water-buffalo horns. Yes, you read that correctly. Reflex, not recurve. What’s the difference? The ends of both bows curve away from the archer. When unstrung, however, the gakgung curves into a C shape, which distinctly differs from a recurve, which curves only at its ends. The gakgung’s extreme curvature creates a short tip-to-tip (top to bottom) length with a high draw weight and long draw length. This design generates long, powerful shots. It’s no wonder the gakgung was a lethal weapon for foot and mounted archer-soldiers.
2. Archery is of “primary” importance.
Fast-forward to today’s primary schools where, according to the BBC, a typical school day includes two hours of archery training. From there, South Korea coaches its best archers through high school and college. Their goal is to eventually make an adult professional team and, if they’re especially skilled, South Korea’s national team. This intense cultivation generates a deep talent pool that regularly competes for the World Archery and Olympic stages. “This system isn’t new,” said John Stanley, a World Archery correspondent. “It’s been in place for decades with one ultimate goal in mind: bringing home Olympic medals.”
And that’s why South Korea dominates Olympic archery, with 23 gold medals so far. The United States follows not so closely with 13 golds.
3. Practice makes perfect …
South Korea’s Olympic medal count is impressive, but it hasn’t been easy. Stanley says Korea’s elite archers train longer and harder than any other squad worldwide. “Up to 10 hours a day and 2,500-plus arrows a week are not unusual,” he said.
They dedicate some of those hours to honing their mental clarity. To focus on mental performance before the Rio 2016 Games, the athletes watched virtual archery simulations in the Sambodromo, Rio’s archery venue.
“Looking at the simulation on screen, I could improve my concentration by checking which motions I should take in each phase during the game,” two-time Olympian Ki Bo Bae told The Korea Times. Ki won individual gold at the London 2012 Games, and team gold and individual bronze in Rio.
South Korea’s teams also practiced at a baseball stadium to acclimate to bright lights and spectator noise, The Korea Times reported. Extreme weather is no match, either, even harsh winter temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
“In an Olympic year, the national team doesn’t (participate in) an indoor season at all,” Stanley said. “They keep shooting at 70 meters all year-round, even in Seoul’s harsh winter temperatures.”
4. But a little fun never hurts.
South Korea’s dedication to archery excellence is intimidating. (Need we recount their Olympic medals?) Even so, its archers aren’t slaves to the Games’ lore. Korean archers are down to having some good ol’ archery fun.
Korea’s Idol Star Athletics Championship is held twice a year, on Korea’s Thanksgiving and lunar New Year. The events pit K-pop idols head-to-head in archery, wrestling, sprints, relays and more. “K-pop” is short for “Korean popular music,” a South Korean musical genre that includes pop, rock, hip-hop, electronic and R&B music. Music gurus worldwide are drawn to K-pop’s dance-intensive, movie-like music videos. Add a recurve bow and arrows to the mix, and you’ve got ultimate archery entertainment that even Hollywood envies.
In September, TWICE’s Tzuyu became a viral archery GIF. “It turns out, the GIF’s magic was enough to grab the attention of Hollywood film directors Taika Waititi and Paul Feig,” AllKPop reported. “Maybe the two directors got some inspiration for their next projects from the cool GIF?”
Another bow-and-arrow blockbuster? We can get on board with that.
You can be amazing, too.
Yes, Korea’s history is rich in archery excellence, but you don’t have to be born with a bow in your hand to be good. Anyone can try archery, no matter their age, gender or physique. Visit a local archery shop, talk to an expert, get some instruction and meet likeminded people. You’ll be arrowing bull’s-eyes before you can say “Gagnam Style.”
Thank you to John Stanley for his contributions to this article.