Was it ever in doubt? It was never in doubt.
In the United Kingdom at least, shortly before the Olympics started the bookmakers were quoting odds of 4/5 that Korea would win the women’s team title, which now looks almost absurdly generous. After the dust on the ranking round had settled and it was clear that the serious threat from Chinese Taipei had apparently faded, as the sun rose over Yumenoshima Park on Sunday morning, some were quoting Korea as short as 1/16 on. At points today, even that seemed generous. No one else came even close to their level. It sometimes seemed like they were playing a different game from the other archers on the field.
It was a day of unspectacular scores shot in brooding heat, dazzling sunshine and highly unpredictable, if mostly light winds. It was also a day of surprises, with three of the last four qualifying in sixth, tenth and twelfth (of twelve) – even if there was no surprise about who ended up on top of the podium.
The day opened with Great Britain’s ship sinking instantly, sunk by an almost equally bad Italy. After that depressing opener, China, who had qualified in third place, had little to offer against a well-organised Belarus team, who were expected to have a short day on the field. Taipei, driven as ever by the talismanic Lei Chien Ying, showed a little of the form that took them to the world title, but ultimately were far too patchy, and a disastrous last set saw Germany, equally patchy, slip through to the quarterfinals. Kroppen, Schwarz and Unruh had to face the much-hyped Mexico, in second spot, but the wave of form that the Mexican women had ridden since Paris hit the beach hard, opening with two sets of 48, and closing with a 49. The firepower wasn’t there, and Germany had found some rhythm.
The USA’s women, qualifying in 2nd place, never really got started against the ROC. Nothing worked for the Americans until the last set, but Russ… sorry, the ROC turned on the afterburners with a 57; Casey Kaufhold apparently kicking her bow in frustration. Six nil. The bear had begun to roar, and it didn’t stop. The ROC’s brand of archery is like a T-72 tank, ugly and clanking, but efficient against many countries. Germany, who always seemed to be riding their luck a little, were overrun in the semi final.
On a field that had mercifully started to cool off a little, the bronze medal match let Germany spread their wings against Belarus, whose luck had finally run out. Sets of 53 and 55 stretched the gap, then Lisa Unruh, the anchor’s anchor, needed a ten at the last to do the job, and she delivered one of the great pressure arrows in women’s history. Germany, unfancied, had grabbed bronze. They had been both good, and lucky.
It was time. The ROC’s tank rolled out for the final time onto the field; with the shadows lengthening and the seats ‘filling’ with as many people as they could. It suddenly felt like the venue was terribly wasted. But by that point, everybody in the arena knew what was about to happen.
Korea had scorched every opponent into the ground. Even so, it wasn’t perfect. In particular, Kang Chae Young seemed tense, and you sensed a little fear. An San, with her classical, elegant technique, has reminded some observers of Park Sung Hyun in her imperious prime – and the tension from yesterday had apparently gone. Anchoring them was most the mysterious member of all; Jang Ming Hee. Her technique apparently involves a huge amount of back tension, wrapping everything around behind her head and locking in tight, reminding some of the older Korean men’s style. The huge drawlength, with her head cocked so far back and that long jawline, means her shot almost explodes off the bow. Somehow, it all just works.
The ROC put in three passable sets, but Korea’s 55, 56, and 54 was more than enough. They could have done it all day long against every other country’s team on the planet, and the result would have been the same. It was not perfect; a janky last set against Belarus in the semi was enough to win, but it meant that perversely enough, bottom-ranked Belarus were the only team to take a point off the ladies in white all day.
The reasons why the Korean national team win have been exhaustively explained; an almost bulletproof combination of money, professionalism, systematic training, and a deep pride in their historical achievements that has never and probably will never be repeated anywhere else on the planet. The Korean women’s team will win again in Paris in 2024. And in Los Angeles in 2028. And in Brisbane in 2032. And no doubt after that too. The women’s team will never be beaten in Olympic competition. Many of the eleven other nations today will be asking themselves questions about preparation, about selection, about rotations – about what might have been. Korea, more than ever, just turned up.
Even on the podium during the familiar national anthem, even then, the three women in white had contrasting styles. Kang Chae Young, who had endured the longest pain after just missing out on the team that went to Rio, was crying her eyes out. Jang Min Hee smiled her mysterious benign smile. And An San, claiming her second gold medal in 24 hours, just looked blankly straight ahead, like there was still plenty of the workday left.