As sure as China will always bring havoc to the table in Olympic ping-pong, and Hungary will always drown the competition in water polo, archery is consistently dominated by South Korea when the games come around.
They took home all 4 of the gold medals at Rio ‘16, 3 out of the 4 in London ‘12 and since 1972, the South Koreans have taken home a grand total of 39 medals from the Olympic Games. More than half of the second-place position which is held by the United States.
Nothing can stop them when it comes to the bows. In fact, Korean Im Dong-Hyun managed to take home a bronze medal in the 2012 games and a gold medal in the team tournament in 2004, despite being legally blind.
Why certain countries will dominate in specific sports has been up for debate for a long time, and the reason is probably different in each case, but it’s always explainable. Let’s take a look at South Korea and see what factors might be contributing to their continued success:
If we go back to the early years of Korea’s military, we find that arrows were the most important long-range weapon used in battle. This would remain the case right up until the Japanese invasions of the 16th Century, despite the rise of apparently more effective weapons such as cannons.
The difference between the Koreans and other countries that also favored the bow is that they got very creative with it and innovated a different type of weapon that allowed for shots with increased power and increased range.
The bow in question was the notoriously lethal Gakgung. Both ends of the wood curved away from the archer when strung, allowing for dramatically higher length and weight of the draw. The speed, intensity and distance of a shot from a Gakgung was unprecedented at the time.
Because of such well-documented and much-admired focus that Korea has put on archery in the past, it has become a deeply ingrained part of their culture. And it’s introduced early to most Koreans too, which leads me to my next point:
For most of the world, physical education in school tends to be quite varied and it often doesn’t involve any particular emphasis on an individual sport. Generally, if you want such specific training you have to seek it out yourself.
This isn’t the case in South Korea at all. Korean primary schools take archery very seriously and it takes precedence over any other type of exercise. Kids will usually spend two hours of every single school day practicing archery.
As you can imagine, if you are practicing something on a daily basis from the age of five or six, the important skills and techniques are going to settle in very early and there will be plenty of time to develop them over the next few years.
With pretty much every child in the country having some level of archery ability, this makes the talent pool pretty wide and a good chunk of them go on to continue pursuing the sport into high school and college.
It’s definitely a long-standing system that’s specifically designed to ensure South Korea maintains their iron grip on the gold, and while it might be a tad bit excessive, archery does have quite a few health benefits for children.
Despite how rigorous the training seems to be for kids, there isn’t any real resentment towards archery because of it. The people of Korea have a great appreciation for the sport and are also entirely willing to have fun with it.
Something that has been increasingly on the rise in Korea is the music genre K-Pop. It’s become a bit of a global phenomenon and the stars of the genre, known as Idols, are some of the most beloved celebrities in the country.
Twice a year, these idols come together to compete in various sports, the most prominent of which is archery. Seeing pop stars competing in the sport gives it the good kind of publicity, and paints it in a positive light.
There’s a perception of a fun, energetic activity more so than something that’s grueling and unpleasant. If this remained to be the case should South Korea somehow start to lose their hold on the game is another matter, but for now it’s probably contributing to why so many decide to pursue it.
So as you can see, there is a number of cultural and historical factors involved here which are not influencing archery anywhere else in the world. And until that changes, south Korea will probably remain on the top of the pile.