LONDON – Maybe it’s the effect of “The Hunger Games” and bow-and-arrow-toting heroine Katniss Everdeen, or the lure of competing at a 200-year-old venue. Or maybe it’s the Robin Hood factor.
Whatever the reason, archery is hot at the London Olympics – sometimes hotter than anything else NBC showed on its cable channels during the opening week of the games.
Much the same way curling became the can’t-miss niche sport of the Vancouver Games two winters ago, archery shined in London.
“The profile of our sport,” said Brady Ellison, the world’s top-ranked archer who helped the U.S. win a team silver medal, “has never been higher.”
About time, archers say.
The sport is getting a boost from the popular “The Hunger Games,” plus more archery in films like “Brave” and “The Avengers.” The sport was also showcased at a venue steeped in history – Lord’s Cricket Ground has been the home of the sport featuring bats, not bows, since the early 1800s – there were many ingredients for intrigue at these Olympics.
And it delivered. NBC said archery even topped basketball when shown on its cable channels, averaging 1.5 million viewers.
“The new curling,” is how NBC Research President Alan Wurtzel described archery. “The numbers for archery have been nothing less than huge.”
The final arrow of these games was shot Friday, so the challenge now becomes keeping these new fans.
In London, the stands were filled for every session. Tickets were tough to find, in part because some locals apparently clamored for them just to see Lord’s.
Much like curling, archery lacks mainstream status in the U.S., and almost certainly won’t get there anytime soon. But the numbers from London show that people are fascinated by it, even if many might not understand what’s happening beyond the basics – an archer, a bow, an arrow, a target.
Maybe that will change now.
“What helped was the movies, of course,” said longtime archery official Don Rabska of the U.S., who coached actress Geena Davis when she tried to qualify for the 2000 Sydney Games. “I think that really brought archery to the forefront, at least in the minds of the spectating public. People are seeing it and saying, ‘Wow, archery’s cool.’ And with those movies in succession coming out bang-bang-bang drew a lot of interest.”
“It was the perfect storm,” Rabska added. “This iconic venue, and people seeing archery, created a draw.”
There was even a bit of controversy. A day after setting the first world records of the 2012 Games, visually impaired competitor Im Dong-hyun led South Korea to a bronze medal in the team event, then suggested his eyesight was less impaired than had been widely reported.
Disney’s animated “Brave” came out earlier this year, the story of a princess who relies on archery to break a curse. “The Avengers” prominently featured the sport as well, and this fall, the CW Television Network is set to debut the show “Arrow,” which revolves around a bow-carrying vigilante.
“More than ever, everybody is kind of following archery a little bit right now,” said U.S. archer Jacob Wukie, part of the silver-medalist team.
Without question, “The Hunger Games” played a huge role in generating attention. (Even LeBron James is a fan.) Katniss, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, shoots an apple from the mouth of a roasted pig in the film. Lawrence spent 15 days training with Khatuna Lorig, who also represented the U.S. in London, about 110 miles south of Sherwood Forest.
“It was really nice,” Lorig said. “It was a privilege for me to coach Jennifer Lawrence. It’s just good for archery. Archery is a unique sport, a great sport, and keeping the kids interested is the best thing.”
There were perhaps as many young kids and teens at Lord’s on Friday for the final archery matches as there were adults, and volunteers at the venue said that was the norm for the competition. For those unsure about what was happening, or what to do, big video screens offered hints, flashing “Applause” at times, “Cheer” at others.
“It seemed something quite sedate really for my son,” said London resident Leo Duggan, a non-archer who attended with 3-year-old son Ted. “Lord’s, this is the home of cricket. You don’t get any bigger or better as far as cricket is concerned around the world. But it gives a great backdrop for this sport.”
Apparently, that might continue.
Lord’s – which loosened its rather firm rules to allow archery on its grass in the first place – hasn’t ruled out future events.
The next Olympic archery venue will be on a site best known for something else. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016, arrows will fly at Sambodromo – the “stadium of Samba” and built nearly three decades ago for the Samba parades during Carnival.
When Rio rolls around, the U.S. archery contingent hopes no one will be surprised if the sport is hot again.
“Any kid can do archery,” Rabska said. “And they’re finding out it’s cool.”