British archery is undergoing a quiet renaissance. Can it hit the spot at the 2012 Olympics?by David Goldblatt / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Larry Godfrey practises at Lord’s: when the Olympic archery competition takes place there next year, the sound of leather on willow will be replaced by the swish of arrows in flight
The edgelands of north Bristol, hidden in the anonymous interstices between motorway junctions, seem an appropriate place to look for British archery. Like many Olympic sports, it does not get a lot of coverage. Even at the Games, where the British team has been competitive for the last decade, the sport has struggled to be seen.
It wasn’t always like this. In the era of the longbow, successive British monarchs implored their yeomen to practise archery and on occasion banned distractions from the task, such as football. While the arrival of the gun ended the bow’s military career, archery was reinvented as a target sport in Georgian England. At the end of the 18th century, after receiving the patronage of the Prince of Wales, the Toxophilite society combined aristocratic glamour, flamboyant costumes, socialising, drinking and competitive sport into an irresistible cocktail. The participants were the rich; the poor, in their thousands, came to gawp.
But the last 150 years have not been kind to the sport. Its glamour faded and it appeared anachronistic, even faintly absurd, in a newly urban and industrial world. What place is there for it now?
At the end of a tiny winding lane, and down a private road behind a stable, I find the Cleve Archers club. It consists of a field and a hut. Beneath a small wooden shooting range is Larry Godfrey, one of Britain’s leading male archers, who is steadily firing at a target the size of a big dinner plate 50 metres away. Godfrey came within a whisker of winning a bronze at Athens 2004 and at 2012 will be challenging for a medal, most probably in the team event.
Watching him practise you can see that he possesses the deeply meditative poise that archery demands. Competing at Olympic level requires Godfrey to combine family life, part-time work as an engineer and the relentless demands of travel and training. It is a sport that demands a balanced state of mind. Yet he is quick to argue that one mustn’t over-train or obsess.
Godfrey explains that using the bow is a little like developing a golf swing. It can be broken down into tiny component parts, from the stance, to the raising of the bow, to the pattern of breathing. Each of these must be perfected and then all must be put together in a smooth automatic set of movements that can be executed faultlessly under the highest competitive pressure.
Right now the only competition is birdsong, and the pleasures of archery are obvious: the lithe twang of the bow, the swish of an arrow in flight, the thud of them hitting the butt. Godfrey also enthuses about the slowly ratcheting tension of a head-to-head competition. I’m convinced, but then I am an easy target. It is much harder to know whether it can work on television.
British archery is undergoing a quiet renaissance. Good Olympic results—Alison Williamson won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004—have brought a small but significant investment of lottery money in the elite end of the sport, with a target of two medals at the 2012 Games. This has helped drive a 50 per cent increase in participation rates in the last decade, making archery one of the biggest of the small sports and one of the most diverse in terms of gender, age, income and regional representation.
Held annually since 1998, the UK Masters is an invitational event for the best archers in the country. It takes place in the bucolic grounds of the Lilleshall National Sports Centre in Shropshire. I went to the 2011 event in early June, which had more of the air of a summer fête or family camping trip than a top-level sporting competition.
I meet David Sherratt, chief executive of Archery GB, and ask him what we can expect at next year’s Olympic archery competition, held at Lord’s. Sherratt tells me that the sport has bent over backwards to become more accessible. Simultaneous competition is out, allowing cameras and audiences to focus on the drama of head-to-head contests. Very long rounds have been replaced by short sets that make errors more costly and upsets more likely. Split screens, big screens and electronic scoring have all been introduced. In South Korea, the world’s leading archery nation, this has produced huge television audiences and very large, noisy crowds.
Lord’s is unlikely to manage such a raucous atmosphere, but may help the sport attract a bigger audience than usual. As a competition, archery is not far from darts and its aural and visual pleasures share elements with golf; both of those work on TV.
Top archers are considerably older than most Olympians; Alison Williamson will be 40 when she competes in her sixth Games next year. They are refreshingly different to other, better-paid athletes: talented but unpretentious, driven but not overbearing. There should be space in our sporting culture for these virtues to have their moment.