After a few millennia, some movies and a grand Olympics show, archery may at last be sticking with Americans.
What's bringing the latest generation around is a pop culture confluence led by "The Hunger Games" and fueled by the 2012 London Games. Archery became the most watched event on NBC in Week 1 and had the ninth-most visited livestream among sports during the first half of the Games. It also didn't hurt that the men's team landed the United States its first medal of the summer.
And, Hollywood has a few arrows left in its quiver. Besides sequels to "Hunger Games" and "Avengers," bows will be drawn this fall in two new series: J.J. Abrams' post-apocalyptic "Revolution" (Sept. 17) and "Arrow" (Oct. 10), the CW series about DC Comics vigilante Green Arrow.
Don't expect archery to be just a spectator sport; kids and adults clamoring to get a quiver of their own have been signing up in record numbers. Olympics-wise, 2016 may be a very different playing field for Americans.
Artemis, Mongolian hordes, Confucius, and other archers in history
The United States is a little late to the game, considering humans across cultures have plied the bow and arrow since prehistoric times. The ancient Greeks looked to Apollo as the god of archery, while his sister Artemis took care of the hunt. Mongolian mounted archers conquered much of Asia. Medieval kings in England and Scotland thought constant training so essential, they applied archery metaphors in their philosophical ruminations. The Japanese art of Kyudo evolved over the centuries into a meditative Zen pursuit. In North America, Native American tribes migrated from the spear to the bow and arrow relatively late, around A.D. 500, and like most cultures, set them aside in favor of the gun. But it was Ishi, the last Yahi Indian who died in 1916, who spurred a 20th-century American revival of the lost art.
From "Hunger Games" to Olympic Games
Decades later, archery has drawn people across generations, and from both genders.
"The latest glut of movies — 'Brave,' 'The Avengers,' 'Hunger Games' — it has really boosted our attendance and interest," says Rob Turner, head coach at the Easton Newberry Sports Complex, one of the country's largest junior Olympic archery development programs. Since the Florida facility opened in 2009, individual class sizes swelled from 20 to more than 100. "It's been really exciting."
The March release of "Revolution" coincided with the organization's first qualifiers in 2012. The organization's site saw 30,585 unique visitors that month, a 60 percent jump compared to March 2011. Interest "reached a fever pitch in March," confirms USA Archery spokesperson and coach Teresa Iaconi. "Literally, the phone did not stop ringing." In the first six months of 2012, USA Archery membership has increased 20 percent.
Bronze medalist Khatuna Lorig, who has competed under the flags of the Soviet Union, Georgia and the United States (she ranked fourth in the individual women's competition this summer) used to hear dismissive comments about archery. "'That's a sport? Are you kidding me?'" she tells Yahoo!
That was before she trained actress Jennifer Lawrence, in 15 one-hour lessons, to shoot fair as "The Hunger Games" heroine. Thanks partly to the women's work, the winds have now shifted. "'Archery is a really cool sport,' that's what they say," Lorig says.
Now archery's appeal, once its drawback, lies in its very accessibility.
"Age doesn't matter, ability doesn't matter. Everybody can shoot arrows," she points out. "You can have fun with that in a recreational way, or you can go hunting, or you can go to the Olympics. That way, archery does deserve its fame, thanks to Hollywood."
Slings and arrows of modest fortunes
Can postapocalyptic superhero fantasies sustain enough of a pull?
"We were waiting for the other shoe to drop," Iaconi admits. "After the Olympics, we usually see a drop off."
That happened in 1996, after Justin Huish brought home gold medals, and when actress Geena Davis tried for (but didn't make) the 2000 women's team. The London Games' record viewings, though, testify to a more engaged audience. Days after the Closing Ceremony, USA Archery is still seeing a bump on social media sign-ups and people clamoring for classes in their area.
And behind the scenes, enthusiasts have invested in the sport since 2008, from opening centers like the one in Florida to building a 40,000-square-foot "state-of-the-art" archery Olympic field house. Construction of the training center in California begins this fall. On the competitive field, 15- to 17-year-olds make up the largest proportion of USA Archery's youth competitors. "Compared to Beijing, it's a world of difference," Iaconi says. "Hopefully, we'll have an even better story four years from now."
"We may not be the fastest athletes. We may not the strongest athletes," Turner says. "[But] I believe we're among the smartest and mentally toughest."