In the span of three hours Sunday during the women’s team archery final rounds, London was, well, London. When spectators like me reached our seats at 3 p.m., for the opening match between Korea and Denmark, we were accompanied by sunshine, a slight breeze and much anticipation because the Korean women were going for their seventh consecutive gold medal. In fact, Korea is the only country to win this particular gold medal since the team competition started in 1988.
The first Korean set of three arrows scored two 10s and an 8. THEN rain cascaded on a stadium full of huddled fans and media, who furiously tried to protect cameras of all kinds and types. The judges continued doing their jobs, standing stoically like guards at tombs of the unknowns. And, of course, so did the archers, who continued shooting.
“Poor Denmark,” we thought. It’s tough enough to shoot against the elite, experienced Koreans on any day, but it’s terribly difficult under the stress of a downpour. The Denmark women bravely stood at the line, shot within their time limits (each team has two minutes to shoot two sets of three arrows) and, unfortunately, they hit an 8, a 7 and the worst arrow in the final round, a 4.
Amid my empathy for the Danes, I wondered if Denmark might be unfazed by shooting in the rain, being that their homeland lies between the North and Baltic seas, and experiences rain nearly once every three days year-round.
In the end, the sports axiom held true: The best teams do best in any conditions. Korea beat Denmark by 11 arrows, and then beat Japan by 15 arrows and won the gold by one arrow on the last shot. Throughout the final rounds we saw sprinkles, steady rain and sheets of rain. And, as I’m learning in London, we also saw bright sun, hazy sun and, to top it off, a rainbow.
Despite the weather – which didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm nor that of the judges, the range support staff, or all-world archery announcer George Tekmitchov – the competitors inspired me. I’ve played football in snow and cold, and watched the Ice Bowl in Green Bay where the Packers beat the Cowboys on a day when the mercury rose to minus 15. I’ve also watched all kinds of other games where the conditions affected scores and, more importantly, the psyche of those participating. I’ve also felt for competitors as they got jerked on and off the course, court or field by weather delays, which has to change momentum.
What I had never seen until Sunday’s medal rounds in the women’s team competition was the fierce concentration and willpower of tournament archers. To my eye, every archer shot the same in rain, drizzle, sprinkles, hazy sunlight and bright sunlight. No matter what happened, they competed. They had to draw their bows, focus on the target, concentrate on all the mechanics of shooting, and release cleanly within the time limit. In archery there are no time-outs, no weather delays, nothing. You can’t change equipment unless it’s already inspected, so you better shoot well in all weather.
When the rain started, as it did several times during matches, the archers had to stay in sequence and on time, and they couldn’t do anything differently than when the sun was shining. The big screen in the stadium showed the intensity and concentration on their faces as they focused on shooting for our sport’s highest honors. Adjusting for the weight of the rain and estimating its impact over the 70 meters to the target had to add stress to every archer’s decision-making.
I later learned that every archer had to remember to pluck the bowstring and tap or whip their arrows to remove rain drops. They also had to compensate for a wet finger tab (most are made of cordovan leather), which meant the tab contacted the string differently. They also had to account for a wet bow hand, which might mean a slip or slightly different grip. Either adjustment could be the difference between a 10 and an 8, which is the difference between gold and elimination in this competition.
“Just another day at the archery range,” is how everyone talked afterward. Meanwhile, I shake my head in amazement at the mental toughness of some of the greatest competitors I’ve seen in ANY sport.