Evolution of modern archery - here’s everything you wanted to know about this Olympic sport

What started as a hunting activity, archery has evolved into a sport that boasts high prestige while retaining values of precision and focus.
By Rahul Venkat

A sport that exudes the values of patience, precision and concentration, archery has evolved into a global sport in modern times.

Defined as the act of using bows and arrows, the word ‘archery’ comes from the Latin word ‘arcus’, which meant bow. It was invented as early as 10,000 B.C and also used in the middle ages for hunting.

However, in modern times, archery gradually turned into a competitive sport, being played with a variety of equipment and over various disciplines.

Archery categories

According to World Archery – the global governing body, the sport of archery is divided into three major sections – target, indoor and field.

Target Archery

Target archery involves shooting at stationary circular targets set at specific distances.

Archers shoot up to a distance of 70 metres (for recurve) and 50 metres (for compound) in standard competition. Archers aim at the five-colour target, consisting of 10 scoring zones in gold, red, blue, black and white rings.

The innermost yellow rings score 10 and nine points, red rings score eight and seven, blue rings score six and five, black rings four and three, while the outermost white rings score two and one points.

It is the most well-known form of modern archery and the one used at the Olympic Games and World Archery Championships. The world rankings are also calculated on the basis of target archery events.

Indoor and Field Archery

The two other categories are indoor archery and field archery.

Indoor archery is a variation of target archery, wherein archers shoot at stationary circular targets over short distances (generally 18 metres) inside a building.

The World Archery Indoor Championships were held from 1991 to 2018, and since then, a new competition called the ‘Indoor Archery World Series’ has been organised.

On the other hand, in field archery, the archers shoot at stationary circular targets of various sizes set at different distances, heights and angles around the course of a natural terrain. It tests archers’ skills in judging distances, shooting uphill and downhill in changing light conditions.

Field archery competitions are held in the form of the World Archery Field Championships and are held every two years. It was first hosted in 1969.

Archery equipment

There are three types of bows used in archery – recurve, compound and barebow.

Recurve

The recurve bow is the only one used at the Olympic Games.

A recurve archer pulls the string towards their face with their fingers and aims at the target through a sight. The arrow is then released downrange towards the target.

The bit where the bow is held is called the riser, off which limbs (or the arcs) of the bow extend. The bowstrings are wrapped at the end of each limb.

An adjustable sight, a rod-like object to which a ‘sight pin’ – which helps archers view the target - is set up, is also attached to the riser.

Archers use long and short rods to stabilise the bow, which helps in windy conditions or keeping the bow steady when the arrow is released. To protect themselves from the string, archers wear finger tabs and arm-guards to protect the forearm from rubbing the bowstring.

Recurve bow.
Picture by 2019 World Archery Federation

In a recurve event, archers shoot over a distance of 70 metres at a target face which has a diameter of 122cm with the innermost 10-point ring measuring 12.2cm in diameter.

Compound and Barebow

A compound bow is similar to a recurve bow, except that the bowstrings are attached to the limbs through pulleys (also called cams). It thus makes archery less physical, allows more accuracy and power from a greater distance.

A compound archer also views his target through a scope with a magnifying lens in addition to a sight pin. A compound competition is held in World Archery Championships and Archery World Cup but not in the Olympics.

The target in a compound event is set at 50 metres. The target face is 80cm in diameter with the innermost 10-point ring 8cm in diameter.

A barebow is the most primitive form of bow in archery, with archers allowed no stabilisers or sight pins to shoot at their targets.

Barebow archers shoot at targets set at 50 metres, with the target face measuring 122cm in diameter.

Archery at the Olympics

Archery formed an early relationship with the Olympics. It was included in the second edition in 1900 and also in 1904, 1908 and the 1920 Games.

However, too many local variations led to archery being dropped from the Olympic programme. The global body of World Archery was formed in 1931 with the aim of getting the sport back in the quadrennial event.

They finally succeeded in that endeavour 40 years later, as archery made a return to the Olympics at Munich 1972, with recurve events being the accepted form.

At present, 64 men and 64 women compete in the individual, team and mixed team archery programme at the Olympics.

The team events were introduced in 1988 while the mixed team event will be played for the first time at Tokyo 2020.

Archery rules

In the individual event, each archer shoots 72 arrows in the qualification phase, the total score of which is used to determine the rankings for the matchplay phase – where archers go head-to-head.

In the matchplay phase, archers compete in best-of-five sets. A set is a predetermined number of arrows shot by an archer or a team, and the ones with a better aggregate score earn two points for winning a set. If the set is drawn, each archer or team is awarded one point.

For individual events, three arrows constitute a set, while it is four arrows for a mixed team event and six arrows for a team event.

The first archer or team to accumulate six points is declared the winner in a matchplay, with the losers being eliminated. This format continues until the final, where the winner takes the gold medal and the loser takes silver.

In case the scores are level after five sets, the matchplay goes into a tie-break. In individual events, the winner is determined by the archer whose arrow lands closest to the target.

In a mixed team or team event, each archer shoots an arrow and the team with the better total is declared the winner.

Most successful Olympic archers

The most successful Olympic archer is South Korea’s Kim Soo-Nyung. She has four gold medals – one individual and three team – in addition to an individual silver and individual bronze at the Summer Games.

Among the men, American Darrell Pace is the most successful archer, having twice won the individual gold medal – in 1976 and 1984, in addition to a team silver.

South Korea is the most successful nation at the Olympic Games, having won 27 golds, nine silvers and seven bronze medals. In fact, South Korea have claimed all the gold medals in the women’s team event since it was introduced in 1988.