By: Brian Hoerst
Sports, for the most part, are games. Invented by someone, played by many, all for pure fun and entertainment. That’s how baseball came along. And basketball. And football. And on down the list. But every once in a while, a game evolves from a practical activity, as in the case of archery, sport born of a survival skill that stretches back thousands of years. The use of bow and arrow has defined civilizations’ borders, aided conquering armies and helped mankind flourish. But for now, archery rests on its historic laurels and has earned an important place in the Olympics.
The mythology of the bow often matches the true history of the weapon. While archery is referenced both in Ancient Egyptian artifacts and the Old Testament of the Bible, multiple Greek gods are traditionally represented with bow in hand. Among the most popular mythical archers is Robin Hood, the legendary defender of the poor in English folktales. From Genghis Khan’s Mongol army to England’s renowned bowmen, archers were often the deciding factor in the success of a military campaign and defense of cities and castles.
The bow and arrow, however, was left behind with the invention and evolution of firearms. By the end of the American Civil War, archery was long forgotten on the battlefield and had been resigned to recreational use. However, in a crucial element of the surrender of the Confederate army, former rebel soldiers were denied the right to own guns following the war. Such former southerners Maurice and Will Thompson soon adopted the bow as a means of hunting, not unlike natives of the country for hundreds of years before. With the help of former slave Thomas Williams, the Thompson brothers helped popularize the sport and guide the creation of the National Archery Association in 1879 in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Maurice Thompson also went on to author a book, The Witchery of Archery, further increasing interest in bow competitions in America, which were already marginally popular in community festivals across Europe.
Archery earned its first Olympic appearance a couple decades later at the 1900 Summer Games in Paris as more than 150 competitors from France, Belgium and the Netherlands squared off in six events. The sport received sponsorship in the 1904, 1908 and 1920 Olympics, as well, but was forced to a 52-year hiatus as international rules had not been established and hosting countries held power over competition format. As a result, seven countries, including the United States, formed the Federation Internationale de Tir a l’Arc (FITA) in 1931 to oversee international archery competitions and to once again secure a place for the sport in the Olympics.
It took over 40 years, but archery returned to the Games in 1972 and team events reappeared in 1988. In 2011, FITA voted to change its name to the World Archery Federation to commemorate 80 years of activity.
The sport itself is simple in theory but horribly complex in execution. Competitors stand 70 meters away from a 48-inch, stationary, ringed target with the intention of striking the center, known commonly as a bullseye. According to FITA, the target appears “about the size of a thumbtack held at arm’s length” at such a distance. Not to mention, wind and rain can have an impact as tournaments may take place outside, which was the case for the 2012 Olympics in London. Individual head-to-head duels consist of 12 arrows per archer, while team events feature 24 arrows across three competitors on each squad. Archers earn points based on the ring hit on the 10-zone target with the highest score winning.
Once a survival skill for both huntsmen and soldiers, archery lives on through one of the most practical competitions of the 21st century.