While the national sport of South Korea, is somehow, weirdly, the online video game ‘Starcraft’, Archery comes in as a close second. The tiny nation comprising the southern half of the Korean Peninsula has become a world superpower of archery. Nationally competitive archers in South Korea enjoy the same lifestyle and professional relationship with their sponsors as NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers in other countries. This articles examines how archery became the ‘real’ national sport of South Korea.
Korean Archery’s Olympic Dominance
The sport of Archery made its first appearance as an Olympic sport in 1904, and was later excluded for over fifty years until 1972, when men’s and women’s individual archery was finally re-instated as an Olympic sport.
24-year old Ki Bo-Bae, engaging in a favorite past-time amongst South Korean Olympic archers: eating their many gold medals.
Not long after in 1979, high schooler Kim Jin Ho won a women’s team gold and South Korea’s first individual gold medal in the Archery World Championships in Berlin. This began a movement in South Korea that catapulted the small country to superpower status in the sport. Largely under the guidance of national head coach and future archery guru, the South Korean team would win a combined eight Olympic golds from 1984 through the 1996 Games.
One of Lee’s most famous athletes, Kim Soo Nyung led the women’s Olympic team in the 1988, and 1992 games with a total of four gold medals. She was only 17 at the time. She also won consecutive individual and team world championships in 1989 and 1991. After winning a silver medal in the ’92 Games, Kim retired from archery to start a family. In 1999, she was called back to the sport and led the 2000 Olympic team in winning her third team gold, and an individual bronze. Kim is widely considered the best female archer of all time.
Cultivating a Culture of Winning
According to British archer Larry Godfrey, there are roughly two British archers who have shot over 1350 points in an Olympic round, whereas in Korea, there are over 50. Much of this can be attributed to the size of South Korea’s national physical education program, and the monetization of corporate-owned teams.
Korean school children receive their introduction to archery while still in elementary school as part of the national physical education curriculum. Children who demonstrate particular talent in their archery classes are invited to join a youth development league, and will train up to two hours a day. Through middle and high school and into University, the level of competition continues to intensify, weeding out those with less ability and motivation.
The best of the best collegiate archers may be scouted and recruited by any of 33 corporate-sposored teams. Similar to auto racing in other parts of the world, companies like Hyundai and LH Corp. sponsor archery teams, providing their archers with a decent wage and a pension solely for competing for their team.
In other countries, few competitive archers make a living from their sport. In fact, in most countries, archers need to be Olympic gold medalists before they will receive enough income (primarily through product endorsements) to cover their cost of living. In Korea, however, many professionals make a very comfortable living without ever competing for the national team.
In short, Koreans have an advantage in the sport simply due to the sheer numbers, particularly youth, involved in the sport. In other countries, the number of nationally competitive archers can be counted on one hand. In Korea, there are over a hundred. There are also over 300 regional teams, and over 1500 archers in a country slightly larger than Indiana. This talent pool is simply too large for many countries to compete with.
Elite Archery Training
The National Training System of South Korea was created by the godfather of archery, Kisik Lee. Although the training system has been scrutinized due to Lee’s religious coaching methods (he baptized Brady Ellis, for Christ’s sake), the system has consistently produced results. Lee partnered with a biomechanics engineer to examine the forces placed on the body when practicing archery.
Brady Ellis receiving the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Based on this research, Lee developed a 12-step shooting cycle that deconstructed the shot down into basic biomechanics processes. Certification in this Training System is required to become an archery instructor under the USA Archery organization as well as the National Field Archery Association.
Although their training is largely based on scientific research, an incredible amount of importance is placed on training each archer’s nerves and their ability to conquer fear and perform under pressure. In teaching the shooting cycle, instructors recommend aiming primarily subconsciously. The general rule is to focus only about 10% of their attention on the target, attributing 90% to the muscles in their core back and fingertips.
This requires an ability for intense concentration, in a variety of conditions. To train for this, Korean archers undergo a variety of eclectic exercises, including training at night, in the rain, and in the bull pens of noisy and crowded baseball games. Athlete’s engage in high diving and bungee jumping as a method of training themselves to deal with fear. All of these exercises are meant to put the athlete’s outside of their comfort zones and prepare them for stressful situations in competition. If you love under water diving than you should use Full Face Snorkel Masks for safe diving.
A Genetic Pre-Disposition
Some theorize that the Korean advantage is entirely genetic; that Koreans have a highly refined sensitivity that gives them greater control in their fingertips and awareness over their body as a whole. If true, this could very well be a strong advantage in a sport where the smallest distance can be the difference between a score of 9 or 10 points.
This argument has gained weight due to the success of I m Dong-Hyun who due to a visual impairment has retained only 10% of his sight. Currently ranked as the Number One male archer in the nation, this ‘blind’ archer claims that being able to see the target is entirely secondary to what goes on behind the bow.
Can Korean Archery be Defeated?
Oh Jin Hyek knows if he ever runs out of food, he’s always got his gold medals
Other countries who hope to be as competitive would be wise to adopt a similarly extensive kids archery and youth development program. In the states, there have been some movements towards archery classes in schools programs, and J.O.A.D. is certainly available to children who seek out the sport. But these programs have nowhere near the reach of Korea’s archery programs where children are assessed, identified, and cultivated from a young age.
Many countries have increased their spending in the sport, including India’s 61-Million-Rupee incentive to any archer that can bring home an Olympic gold. In America, the steady rise of Brady Ellison has been fueled largely by sponsorships from sports equipment companies like Easton. In fact, the arrow manufacturer just last year signed a deal to build a new 40,000 square foot Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. The fact that the U.S. was able to poach Korean head coach Kisik Lee in the late 90s is statement enough of their willingness to spend on Olympic dominance in archery.
And yet, nightmares of the South Korean dominance in the sport fuels the archery training of athlete’s all over the world. With a winning streak like no other, the South Koreans do not appear to be anywhere ready to give up their title as world’s greatest.