Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Archery on the Front of the Boston Globe Sports Section

An unsung Olympic sport, archery really hits the spot

By Bob Ryan, Globe Columnist | August 12, 2008

BEIJING - Archery is my kind of sport: no judges.

Pick up the bow. Pull back the arrow. Fire. You either hit the target or you don't. You add up the points, and the archer, or team, with the most points wins. No muss, no fuss.

It's one of those Olympic sports that doesn't exactly threaten to muscle football, baseball, basketball, or hockey off the American front pages. But it's one of those sports that produces an interesting mix of competitors. Take, for example, the three-man American men's team, which consists of 52-year-old five-time Olympian Richard "Butch" Johnson, 32-year-old three-time Olympian Victor Wunderle, and 19-year-old Olympic debutant (as the Brits would say) Brady Ellison.

They entered the team competition with the sincere hope of medaling, but it apparently wasn't meant to be, as they were ousted yesterday morning by a team from Chinese Taipei.

"We never expected to go out this early," said Johnson, a Worcester, Mass., native who now lives in Woodstock, Conn., and, when he isn't practicing, works in Hall's Arrow, an archery store in Manchester, Conn. "We were pretty sure we'd make it to the medal round. It just didn't happen today. It wasn't from lack of effort; everyone did his best. We just weren't on our game today."

The team was put in a precarious position in the second "end," or round, when Wunderle, an individual silver medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, could manage only a 6. Chinese Taipei made the Americans pay for that in the third end when Chen Szu Yuan, Kuo Cheng Wei, and Wang Cheng Pang each had bull's-eye 10s. Team USA never was able to catch up.

Wunderle had no explanation for his boo-boo, or the team's disappointing performance.

"We had been shooting very well, been practicing very well, he said. "In this game it comes down to if you're shooting good that day. I was a little off this morning, and the whole team wasn't shooting up to its capabilities."

They had a slim hope of advancement when they came out of the seventh, or next-to-last, end trailing by a 192-189 score. They got 29 out of the maximum 30 when Wunderle and Ellison each came up with a 10, but the Chinese Taipei trio responded to the challenge with a trio of 10s. Final score: Chinese Taipei 222, USA 218.

But it's not the end of the Olympics for Mssrs. Johnson, Wunderle, and Ellison. They will have to see what they can accomplish in the individual competition that begins later this week.

Johnson's great achievement, of course, is simply being here. He's not the oldest Olympian - that honor goes to 58-year-old John Dane III, a member of the sailing team. He got a relatively late Olympic start after switching disciplines, his first Olympics being Barcelona, where his team finished sixth. His peak was teaming with Justin Huish and Rodney White to win the team gold in Atlanta, where they had to survive a technical glitch when the scoreboard showed the US and Korea with identical scores of 250 (under a different scoring system) when it actually should have read USA 251 Korea 249. Fortunately, the error was corrected without the countries taking up arms, and the appropriate medals were distributed.

The soft-spoken Johnson is regarded as the patron saint of contemporary American archers, at least in the eyes of his 19-year-old teammate.

"If he ever retires, he'll be put right up there with Darrell Pace," says Ellison, referring to the two-time gold medalist (Montreal, Los Angeles). "Everyone knows who he is. Think about it. This is his fifth team, but it could easily have been his ninth. It's been an honor to know him and be on the same team with him."

Johnson returns the compliment.

"His potential is unlimited," Johnson says of Ellison. "He's a great talent. He's got a good attitude and great practice habits. And he's only been shooting this style for a couple of years."

Ellison certainly had nothing to be ashamed of, firing an 8, five 9s, and 10s in his final two shots. This was, after all, his first Olympic experience and it was in front of a very pro-Chinese Taipei crowd.

But he offered a quasi-apology, regardless.

"I honestly wish I had gone in there and shot a lot better than I did," he said. "The first six arrows were high left. I kept moving my sight, not enough. Finally, I got the last two arrows in there."

He feels he has learned lessons that can be applied to his individual competition.

"It's one shot at a time, whether it's in team or individual, so I'm going to go in there and shoot my shots," he said. "Hopefully, they hit. I know how I feel in the stadium now, so I was able to learn from that today."

Given his time of service, Johnson is as qualified as anyone to evaluate what he's seen the Beijing Olympics.

"It's very good," he says. "The people are very, very nice and the venue is outstanding. I'd say it's the best combination of everything I've seen."

And, yes, he would like a chance to enter the London Games in 2012 into the evaluation process.

"Probably," he said. "Whether I make the team or not is another matter. I can't see myself stopping. I love this sport and I love competing too much. So I will try out."

That sounds good to Brady Ellison.

"He's an amazing guy," Ellison declared. "To be able to do what he does, to be staying at the top of his game, that's really inspiring. I hope I can do the same."

There's a lot percolating out here in the "other" Olympic sports. It's too bad we only check in with these people once every four years.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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