Archery is one of the oldest sports in the Olympics, and it arose from hunting and warfare. Modern engineering has greatly changed today’s bows, but it all started with a simple stick and string.
Some of the oldest bows resembled the English longbow, which is a straight piece of wood that’s bent and held in a flexed position by a taut bowstring attached at both ends. To shoot, the archer pulls the bowstring and nocked arrow to full draw, with the bow limbs storing more energy the farther they’re drawn. When archers release their arrows, they unleash the energy stored in the wood’s natural elasticity, propelling their arrows toward the target. The same concepts remain today, but modern designs are far more efficient. Old bows required extremely high draw weights for hunting and waging war.
As bows evolved, modern recurve-limb designs changed the bow’s shape. A limb with a tip curving away from the bowstring transfers energy to the arrow far more efficiently than is possible in longbows. Therefore, recurve bows with lower-poundage limbs generate the same arrow speeds as high-poundage longbows. Better materials also appeared; a bow made of bamboo and horn in Mongolia differed greatly from Europe’s wooden bows.
Although Olympic archers in the early 1900s used longbows, those bows soon fell from favor. By the time archery returned to the Olympics in 1972 at Munich, recurve bows ruled. And soon after that, the Olympics’ format also changed. Olympians today shoot at targets 70 meters away, and they compete in a qualification round that ranks them one through 64 to assign them a bracket. In the “set play” that follows, the No. 1 archer faces No. 64, the No. 2 archer faces No. 63, and so on. As the brackets fold in half, winners advance to the next round. Those six rounds of head-to-head competition end with an Olympic gold medalist.
In contrast, competition from 1972 to 1992 consisted of a double “1440 round” in which archers shot four distances. Men shot 90 meters, 70 meters, 50 meters, and 30 meters. And because women shoot lower draw-weight bows, they shot 70 meters, 60 meters, 50 meters, and 30 meters. In a 1440 round, archers shot 36 arrows at all four distances, which added up to 144 arrows. If they shot a perfect round, they scored 1,440 points, hence the round’s name. A double 1440 was two single rounds shot back to back to end the competition. The archer with the highest score won.
Today’s Olympic competition occurs more quickly, so archers must be mentally prepared for the faster pace. Their predecessors prepared for mental endurance.
Shooting Olympic-style archery is as simple as registering with a local club and learning from a certified coach. From there you compete locally and advance into regional and national tournaments. If the Olympics are your goal, you must work up to it by taking smaller steps in competition. Be patient, work hard, and eventually you might be training alongside some of your country’s best archers.