The archery competition at the 2012 Olympics in London was held in the reverent hush and manicured lawns of Lord’s Cricket Ground, all tea, scones and cucumber sandwiches.
Archery at the Rio Olympics is rimmed by gritty favelas at the Sambodromo, the parade ground for the annual Carnival festival, with elaborate floats, feathered headdresses and sequined outfits that leave little to the imagination.
Didn’t matter for the U.S. men’s team. Same result.
Saturday had a different feel for Brady Ellison and Jake Kaminski, both on the London team, and not because archers by trade are a reserved, demure lot and the Sambodromo is a roiling caldron of bacchanalian revelry as athletes enter through a human tunnel of samba dancers and percussionists. Or because mosquitos decided it was dinner time during the medal ceremony.
It was because South Korea was that good, insanely, ridiculously, preposterously good.
“It’s so much different this time,” Ellison said, wearing his silver medal. “I’m excited, I’m happy. After London I was [mad]. We didn’t shoot the best we could there and we lost a gold medal. We did our job here and won the silver.
“It was a be-perfect type of night. We were damn good, and they were perfect. That’s really what it boils down to.”
Four years ago the Americans shocked the top-seeded South Koreans in the semifinals, then lost in the final to Italy by a single point.
It wasn’t that close this time.
South Korea and the U.S. team were 1-2 in the seeding round Friday, meaning they were in opposite brackets and couldn’t meet until the gold-medal match. Both rolled over their semifinal opponents — South Korea over Australia, the U.S. over China — setting up the most anticipated arrow showdown of these Olympics.
The U.S. coach is former South Korean coach Kisik Lee, who left a decade ago to take over the national program at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. “They’re not comfortable competing against me,” Lee said of his homeland. “I know that. That’s what happened in London. But this time, they didn’t break.”
The team event is contested across five sets, with each archer shooting three arrows — – or six per team per set. The target has concentric scoring rings and is 70 meters away (think of standing on the 34-yard line and shooting at the opposite goal post). Fire an arrow inside the inner ring, about the size of grapefruit, and you get a perfect score of 10 points.
South Korea’s six arrows in the first set: 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10.
In all, they shot 18. Fifteen were perfect 10s; the other three were 9s.
“They were impressive,” said Zach Garrett, the U.S. team’s 21-year-old newcomer. “I think we were impressive too, just maybe not as much.”
This was South Korea’s 20th archery medal, its most in a Summer Olympic sport and one behind the record 21 it has from short-track speedskating in the Winter Games.
“We prepared in more detail,” said Kim Woo-jin, who in Friday’s ranking round broke the 72-arrow individual world record with a score of 700 (out of a possible 720). “We were more thorough.”
The first thing they did was choose an entirely new team, from a country where Lee estimates there are 200 “professional archers whose job is to shoot six days a week.” Then they practiced a lot, shooting 400 to 500 arrows a day and sometimes 600. Then they practiced in front of a crowd inside a domed baseball stadium to simulate the raucous atmosphere at the Sambodromo, which was filled with Korean fans banging white thunder sticks.
“I do not wish to think this was all based on luck,” the 23-year-old Kim said. “We put in a lot of effort and spent a lot of time in preparation. I’d like to think it is due to our effort and preparation.”
Whatever it was, the Americans were powerless to do anything but acknowledge greatness, clapping and bowing and hugging their opponents afterward.
“We just got beat,” Ellison said. “That’s a score that may never be shot again, what they just hit. And that’s the truth. They dropped [only] three 10s. That’s just insane. They just lit it up. My hat’s off to them. I told them, ‘Very impressive. You guys did an amazing job.’
“It was an honor to be in that match, it really was. That match will be a highlight reel for a long time.”