Is the dominance of the Korean recurve men fading?

Everyone involved in archery knows about the dominance of Korea’s recurve teams in international competition, and especially at the Olympics.

While the Korean women hold the more consistent record at the Games, the men’s team holds similarly high expectations. Especially since Oh Jin Hyek finally became the first Korean man to win the Olympic individual title in 2012.

And at the world championships, a Korean recurve won the world title 13 out of 12 times between 1993 and 2017. (The run was broken by Michele Frangilli of Italy in 2003.)

But at the 2019 Hyundai World Archery Championships, for the first time since 1991, there wasn’t a Korean man in the final. Or even the bronze medal match.

The USA’s Brady Ellison beat Khairul Anuar Mohamad of Malaysia to gold and the States’ first recurve men’s world champion since 1985. Bangladesh’s Ruman Shana took his country’s first ever world medal with bronze.

Korea’s athletes went out of contention early.

Lee Seungyun and Lee Woo Seok lost their first matches. Seungyun was beaten by Sanzhar Mussayev of Kazkhstan. Top seed Lee Woo Seok fell to Athens 2004 Olympic Champion Marco Galiazzo.

Kim Woojin beat Wei Chun-Heng but then lost to man-of-the-moment Shana. The Bangladeshi archer took advantage of Woojin’s uncharacteristic triplet of 27-point sets.

The trio as a team was beaten in the semifinals by a young squad from China. They left the championships with bronze.

Most teams have captains – often an unofficial title – but Korean team captains have a specific role to play. It’s a country that puts great emphasis on hierarchy.

As the dust settled on the world championship results, Kim Woojin explained his responsibility.

“As a leader for the team, I need to give good words before, during and after competition. Not only at the world championships, but all the time. That’s my job as the team leader,” he said.

“The competition wasn’t so good in terms of results, and I’m disappointed. But this is not the last chance for us. We still have more chances in the future. This will be a good opportunity to build the team back up again, to prepare well and grow.”

“We can take what we have learned here and use it in the competitions next year.”

Nothing on paper suggests Woo Seok, Seungyun and Woojin are anything less than the very best available – or that any were unfit.

Kim Woojin and Lee Seungyun have both won the world championships – Woojin twice – and Lee Woo Seok has been the hottest young property in Korean archery over the past couple of years. And the three of them sailed through national selections, widely regarded as one of the toughest processes in the world.

Those trials are designed to eliminate variance as much as possible – and produce a team that can perform to a consistently high level, each and every time.

Kang Chae Young’s individual record of two gold medals and one silver from three events in 2019 is a testament to its success. (Even if the silver came at the biggest tournament – the worlds.)

Luck plays its part in high-level archery, of course, and the level around the world has been catching up with Korea for some time. The championships, and the pressure that accompanies it, always throws up some unexpected results.

There are many men’s teams with the same level of raw skill as Korea – even if there are none with the same immense strength in depth.

Undoubtedly, the Korean team will analyse, evaluate and improve after these world championships. The squad still secured its full, six-athlete quota for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and remains a strong favourite for all five medals next summer.

But perhaps holding on to the big titles that have been seen, for so long, as rightfully Korea’s might not be easy forever.

For whatever reason, is it possible that the era of Korean dominance – in the recurve men’s category, at least – is fading to an end?

The 2019 Hyundai World Archery Championships took place on 10-16 June in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.