India’s compound archers had an outstanding 2023. But their Olympic dreams were left shattered as the discipline failed to find a place at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Aditi Swami and Prathmesh Jawkar won maiden gold medals in the women’s and men’s individual compound archery events at the National Championships on Tuesday but were reminded of a less pleasant fact just a while after their triumph. With Swami and Jawkar standing on either side of him, one of the organisers of the competition misspoke while puffing up the tournament to local media.
“We have here some of our top Olympic medal-winning archers,” he said.
While Swami and Jawkar were indeed gold medal-winning archers, their victory came at the Asian Games earlier this year. With compound archery not featuring in the Summer Games, neither of the duo is likely to win an Olympic medal anytime soon.
Both Swami and Jawkar know this, of course. Compound is not an Olympic event, unlike recurve archery. Although there were rumours of the discipline’s inclusion in the Olympic programme for Los Angeles 2028, that hope came crashing down at the IOC session in Mumbai last month. Compound archery was not included in the list of five additional sports that made it to the quadrennial Games.
Disappointed at missing out
“We were preparing for the Asian Championships selection trials in Sonepat when the IOC summit was going on in Mumbai. I used to get up in the morning and check the news to see if compound archery was being included. When I found out that compound archery wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics, I felt really bad. I really thought it would because even cricket got included. I know that if compound archery comes into the Olympics, India would not only have a very good chance of qualifying but doing well also,” says Swami, who won gold at the World Championships in the women’s individual category, followed by a gold and a bronze at the Asian Games in the women’s team and individual category.
It wasn’t just Swami who felt this way. “It was heartbreaking because we felt there were possibilities. I felt that archery was growing, and if it got an Olympic platform, it would have been great. It would have pushed a lot of young archers to take up the sport. But since it is not part of the Olympics, that excitement has come down a little bit,” says Ojas Deotale, who not only won gold at the World Championships but also followed that up with three gold medals—in the men’s individual, men’s team, and mixed team events—at the Asian Games.
Despite their impressive performances over the course of the year, many of India’s top compound archers believe that the lack of Olympic status means their sport doesn’t get the same value as recurve archery. “The Olympic Games are much bigger than any other event. Every athlete knows that you get a lot more recognition from the Olympics. There is a definite bias in favour of recurve archery because it is an Olympic sport. It’s not wrong, either. Because even the government wants Olympic medals,” says Jawkar, who won gold in the men’s team event at the Asian Games. He had also defeated then-world number 1 Mike Schloesser of the Netherlands at the World Cup in Shanghai earlier this year.
While the archers admit that this bias has reduced in recent years, it has not gone away completely. “In terms of support, I don’t think we can complain. Compounder archers get a lot of support. But there is some bhedbhav (discrimination) because for compound archers, the most important tournament is the Asian Games, which is already over. Now, after the Asian Games, we don’t really have any major tournaments. Next year, we have the World Cups, but the focus in archery will be the qualification tournaments for the Olympic Games in recurve,” says Swami.
There seems to be a solution to this problem. Swami is 17, Jawkar is 19, and Deotale, 21. All admit they have been told to switch to recurve archery. Jawkar came the closest to making the shift. “I discussed this with my coach at the start of the year. I wanted to win a gold medal at the Archery World Cup, and after that, I thought I would shift to shooting recurve. But even after I won that gold medal, I kept shooting compound. I was still thinking compound archery might come into the Olympics,” says Jawkar.
The switch from compound to recurve is difficult. Although they seem similar at first glance, there is a significant difference between the two events. Although both compound and recurve archery involve drawing back the limbs of the bow by pulling a string, the mechanism of action on the two implements is different. The drawing action in the compound bow is aided by a pulley mechanism, which significantly reduces the strain on the archer’s muscles when the string is drawn completely. Compound archers don’t hold the string physically while pulling it back but use a release switch to lose the arrow. Although the arrow, as a result of mechanical aids, is easier to control, compound archers have a far smaller target to aim at.
Hard to make the switch
The challenge is significant enough that in the sport of archery, no World Championship medal-winning compound archer has transitioned successfully and won a world medal in recurve or gone the other way around. “Just because the sports are similar doesn’t mean that someone good in one will be good in the other. Pistol and rifle shooting are also about shooting a gun, but you don’t expect the pistol shooter to suddenly be good at rifle shooting,” says Swami.
It isn’t as if archers haven’t tried though. Rajat Chauhan, the 2015 World Championships silver medallist in the individual compound event, 2014 Asian Games gold medallist in the men’s team event, and silver medallist in the men’s individual category at the National Championships, did so. The 28-year-old has the ink to prove it, too. On Chauhan’s right forearm is a large tattoo of the Olympic rings that he got made in 2017 when he decided to switch to recurve.
“I won the Arjuna Award in 2016 and then switched to recurve. At the end of the day, Olympic sports are the gods of all other sports in India. In archery, recurve is also treated as a god because of this. Compound archers may have won medals in the same competitions where recurve never has (recurve archers are yet to win an individual medal at the World Championships or Olympics, for example), but if it’s not an Olympic event. So, it’s not a priority,” Chauhan says.
Not only did Chauhan shift, but he also managed to compete at the 2017 National Championships as a recurve archer. “I qualified for Rajasthan in the recurve event. Although I only had about six months of training, I shot 622 (out of 720) in the State trials,” he says.
“It’s a really good score for someone who was switching because they are completely different events. The difference is that when you are shooting recurve the greatest strain is at the end of the draw. And in compound because of the mechanism, it is a lot easier to hold the bow when you draw it. But it’s not impossible. I think it was harder to overcome the taunts of people who said that I couldn’t do it,” he says.
Chauhan says he probably would have continued to shoot recurve if he hadn’t been seeking a sports quota job. “I knew it would take me a few years to get good enough to be competitive in recurve archery. But at that time, I needed a job as well. If I had a job, I would probably have been shooting recurve over here,” he says.
Making their peace
The time needed to switch and the uncertainty of success, even if you did, kept many of India’s top young compound shooters from doing so. “I know that it will take six or seven years if I have to make that change,” says Swami.
Asian Games triple champion Deotale feels the same. “I’ve reached a certain level in compound archery that I can’t go back. My body is also far more suited for compound than recurve. I’ve actually tried recurve in 2017 for one year,” he says.
With almost no possibility of changing events, India’s young compound archers say they still have plenty to look forward to. “We aren’t part of the Olympics, but we have our own goals,” says Jawkar. “I beat the World No. 1 in the World Cup. My goal for next year is to become World No. 1 myself,” he says.
This is true for Deotale, too. “We have competitions that are important for us. The Asian Games will remain the most important competition for us. We will try our best to perform over there. I might have won three gold medals at the Asian Games, but there are still medals that I haven’t won. We didn’t win a gold medal in the men’s individual category of the Asian Championships. That’s one medal I want to win. I also want to retain my gold medals from Hangzhou (Asian Games),” says Deotale.
And while they may not get as much recognition in comparison to their Olympic-bound colleagues, India’s young compound archers have made peace with how things are. “Getting recognition might only matter if that was my only motivation when I got into archery. I started shooting compound archery because that was what I was good at and what I really enjoyed. When I got into archery, I was very happy to even get a chance to play the Nationals. It would be great to shoot at the Olympics, but I am happy to get the chance to be a compound archer,” says Jawkar.