'Hunger Games' popularity sends interest in archery soaring

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Cast member Jennifer Lawrence attends the premiere of the film "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in New York, November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)
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The United States has a secret weapon for helping to produce future Olympic archery champions, but she isn't a coach or a current athlete. In fact, she isn't even real.

She is Katniss Everdeen, who, just in case you've been living under a rock these past couple of years or don't have teenage children, is the heroine of "The Hunger Games" book and movie series.

With a bow and arrows as her weapon of choice, Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film, has unwittingly created a dramatic surge in American archery participation, especially among young women. Book publisher Scholastic printed more than 26 million copies of the trilogy and the second movie installment, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," hits cinemas this week as the most-anticipated film of the year.

Just as some movie diehards started camping outside multiplexes days in advance, so too have archery ranges been preparing for a fresh wave of activity.

"It has been unbelievable," said Joe Dotterer of the Oranco Bowmen archery range in Chino, Calif. "The ranges are packed. [The sport] has just ballooned in interest ever since the first movie. Archery stores are swamped and started running out of equipment. Now with the second movie we are expecting even more, more kids, especially more young girls and families. It has been huge for the sport."

At the highest level of archery, the anticipation is even greater. For niche sports such as this, participant numbers often equal the key to greater success. If one out of every thousand can reach elite level, the more thousands there are … well, you get the picture.

"It has changed our sport," said USA Archery CEO and three-time Olympian Denise Parker. "There has been archery in movies before, things such as "Rambo," and there has been some pickup in popularity along with that.

"But what is so amazing with "Hunger Games" is that you have this character, Katniss, who is confident and beautiful, and the way she uses the bow is an extension of that. That is what really resonates and makes people want to try this.

"It is inevitable that the wider the pyramid of people the greater chance you will have champions come through the ranks. It raises the whole level overall. In a few years we will hopefully have Olympic champions who fell in love with the sport through these movies. It is very exciting."

Archery seems to have become Hollywood's most fashionable method of combat. As well as "The Hunger Games," the animated movie "Brave," featuring a flame-haired heroine called Princess Merida, was wildly popular and appealed to an even younger audience.

"The Avengers" and "The Hobbit" are other recent blockbuster movies to have featured glamorous, bow-wielding characters. In "Avengers," the archery performance of Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye was entirely computer generated. With Katniss, however, it came down to the skills Lawrence picked up during a series of training sessions with U.S. national team archer and former Olympic bronze medalist Khatuna Lorig.

"Jennifer was a good student," Lorig told Yahoo Sports in a telephone interview. "It was important to me for the scenes to be realistic and she did great. Ask any archer and they will tell you she looked just like a top archer.

"The first time someone comes in, they don't know anything. They don't know how the bow functions or even how to hold it properly. But she picked it all up."

Part of archery's challenge is keeping its top athletes in the sport. The peak age for Olympic competitors has typically been from the late teens to late 20s, but that may be more to do with life's realities getting in the way for older athletes rather than any physical decline. The small allowances that USA Archery can afford may be fine for college students, but things get tougher once family commitments become more pressing.

With the upturn in archery popularity, more opportunities may start to open up for the leading lights. Lorig, who turns 40 in January, is a prime example, having developed a thriving coaching business that has allowed her to keep competing. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is the next major target on her horizon.

And for her, the challenge is no longer figuring out how to make ends meet but finding enough time for her own training.

Figures released this week indicate that USA Archery's membership has more than doubled in the past two years since the first "Hunger Games" movie, with many of the newcomers female, according to Parker. So there is unlikely to be any shortage of new pupils.

"There is just a different feeling around the archery community," Parker said. "Previously all our attention was focused on maximizing the small window of opportunity around the Olympics every four years because that was the only time there was any television coverage.

"With these developments people see archery in a different way. People are coming to ranges on dates, for parties or just to hang out. It is very exciting and in time I am confident we will see the impact in future Olympics."