The Korean dominance of Olympics archery and what it tells us about economies
South Korean archers are a different breed.
You might know it now, maybe because you know they have won 25 of the 36* gold medals that have been awarded at the Olympics since 1984, or maybe because you read up about them outclass the Indian pair in the mixed event quarterfinals at Tokyo, or maybe because you saw them in the women’s team event shooting just 4 arrows below 9 on their way to the gold. They have won every gold medal in this event since its inception at the Seoul 1988 Games, the tied longest streak in all sports at the Olympics. That’s unreal consistency and excellence.
Korea’s journey to being the dominant force in world archery is no accident. In fact, it mirrors the journey of South Korea’s modern economic miracle of claiming its place among the world’s richest countries in two short decades. Both achievements have the origins in the strategically clever utilization of a not-so-secret sauce. Something that the world has known since Adam Smith’s times - specialization unlocks productivity.
They have applied it to everything from making cars and phones to K-Pop.
To understand how that works, let’s talk about Im Dong-hyun.
A former World Number 1, Dong-hyun’s achievements are beyond reproach. He has two Olympic golds, another five at the World Championships, and one at the World Cup to boot. The thing is he is close to being “legally blind”. Im has 20/200 vision in his left eye and 20/100 in his right eye. In simpler terms, he would need to be 10 times closer to something to see it as clearly as someone with normal (20/20) vision would. But when shooting an arrow, he is the same distance away as everyone else - 70 meters, or as the Olympics official video compares it, the wingspan of two planes. Im doesn’t use contacts or wear glasses when he competes. So, how does he manage in a sport legendarily synonymous with good eyesight? He told the BBC in 2012 that he simply aims at the yellow blob that he sees (the centre of the target which has the 9s and 10s scoring places), and incessant practice with countless arrows shot to perfect the technique** and the process takes care of the rest. That’s how he set a World Record at London 2012, for a 72 arrow round scoring 699 out of a possible 700. It is classic specialisation in action. Doing something over and over again until you get so good at it that factors that may have seemed vital are now deemed superfluous.
It’s both intuitive and counter-intuitive.
The Korean Miracle
Specialisation built the modern world economy. There is a fair amount of consensus that growth over the last couple of centuries took off as the gains from specialisation and trade began to be realized. Western European economies were first, and then post the Second World War, it was seen in Asia, first in Japan, and then in the ‘Tiger’ economies in the continent, a group which among others, featured - you guessed it! - South Korea. Korea had a turbulent period following WWII as the Japanese occupation retreated, but a North Korean invasion almost overran them. The rebuilding began after Syngman Rhee, appointed in 1953 as President, was overthrown in the wake of student protests against rampant corruption in 1960. A military coup followed and Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee was elected president in 1963. Under his regime, the country aped the Japanese model of setting Korea on the growth path:
“select industries to grow, foster them with access to credit and other benefits, select good firms on the basis of their export performance, and allow these winners to expand further (globally and) into other sectors, while closing down the losers.” ***
How does that connect back to archery? In Korea, archery is a de facto national sport. It’s an obsession that stems from history - the bow was a key long-range weapon to ward off Japanese invasions until around the 15th Century - and translates into archery being part of the daily routine in primary schools. It’s a convenient place to start identifying early talent, and developing a deep pool of talent that produces the assembly line of elite athletes who outclass their competitors on every world stage, not least the quadrennial Olympic Games.
The Arrow Corridor
South Korea landed its first Olympics Archery gold in 1984. But what is impressive is how they have kept producing winners, which is the key indication that the success blueprint hasn’t left anything to chance. Just like chaebol companies like Samsung and Hyundai were given support by the government to turn them into flagship of immense innovation and success that drive the Korean economy, archery receives the same push via government funding and support for the sport. Back then, it was not just about funding and catching archers young at primary school and selecting the best, it was also about the untiring quest for perfection.
An investment in innovation has been at the bedrock of South Korea’s modern development with policies incentivising it for companies. The stats bear it out - the country’s research intensity (measured as the amount spent annually on R&D as a fraction of the GDP) is higher than the likes of US, China, Germany and traditional rivals Japan. In the last 25 years, it’s gone up almost 2X, to 4.3% of GDP. Around the same time (actually between 1981 to 1997) the archery team themselves were increasing their research intensity (the amount of time and money they were spending on R&D) to study the techniques of their archers “to make our archers' technique as efficient as possible” as Kisik Lee who was the head coach then put it. Lee’s influence was comparable to what Arsene Wenger did to Arsenal and by extension, to English football, when he became the first foreign manager in the Premier League.
Specialisation is great, but to build a sustainable advantage, you need to stay ahead of the curve. As Lee said to the BBC back in 2012, “it is important that training techniques keep changing all the time and you approach the sport in a different way".
To keep the economy sailing through boom and bust, governments often build welfare safety nets such as unemployment insurance, public healthcare systems and other public goods. In Korean archery, the private sector stepped up to repay the favours it was made by the government in the 1960s and 1970s. Only about a third of the funding for the Korean Archery Association comes from government funds (through the Olympic committee). The rest comes from the Hyundais and the Samsungs who hire identified promising archers out of university and employ them with wages and lifetime pensions just to compete for them. Indian readers might remember a moment in MS Dhoni’s biopic, where gets picked by a mining company to play cricket for their team even though he has no other specific skillset to offer for the job at the company. Take that and make it institutional and an on-going affair and you get the Korean archers’ safety net.
This is how they have a bench strength so deep; Korea, by some estimates has 8-10X the number of elite archers a typically competitive country like say the US or France would have. Even if they are not picked for international competitions, they don’t have to abandon their specialised discipline because of the opportunity cost. The system’s robustness ensures it continues decade upon decade to add up to the awe inspiring results that they pull off.
Matters of the Mind
The last piece of the puzzle is the human psyche. Often, national efforts to grow the economy, or excel at a given sport have met their match in the human frailties of those who need to make it happen. But even there, the minutest detail is not spared by the Koreans in their training. In levels of preparation that can only be described as Daniel Ocean-esque, (or Aankhen, if you prefer), the Tokyo squad practiced in an arena that was custom made to be a replica of the Tokyo venue, complete with simulated crowd noise and loudspeaker announcements in English and Japanese. They even practiced at a live baseball game before Rio 2016, to fine tune their mental poise under poise. They practiced for a year in an exact replica of the Beijing’s 5000-seater stadium that hosted the event in 2008. This is the last, and most important innovation in the hyper-specialisation that has become the bedrock of their success. As Seo Geo Won, former coach of the women’s team told WSJ in 2011, “We develop ways of conquering fear.”
The package, as it turns out, is well nigh unbeatable.
However, like all economies and sporting teams, there is competition emerging as others adapt the best practices that Korea has been following. But their headstart is likely to ensure that their dominance endures for a while longer.
And in that time, it will always be awe-inspiring to watch a Korean archer let an arrow fly.
* Includes medals awarded in Mixed and Women’s Team events at Tokyo; tally is updated as of 25 July 2021.
** According to the BBC, “[a]rchers… use visualisation techniques, such as shooting rounds with an unloaded bow and scoring themselves on how they feel they would have done. They will then shoot and score a round with arrows, with the tallies for the two often being just a few points apart.” as part of their training
*** ‘South Korea: A Concise Profile’, background note authored by Michael A. Witt, Senior Affiliate Professor of Strategy and International Business at INSEAD
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