A Quiet Sport in an Unlikely Place: Olympic Archery in Rio's Samba Stadium

A place usually reserved for the loud Carnival is host to this year's Olympic archery competition. On Saturday, the U.S. men's team vied for gold in the finals.
August 9, 2016, 1:30pm
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine being "shushed" inside Brazil's most famous samba stadium. It would never happen during Carnival, when drums beat loudly and dancers from the nation's finest samba schools swivel en masse to compete for top honors.

But archery is everything that samba is not. It's intense. It's unflinching. Yet, until August 12, the most subtle and nuanced sport in the Olympics meets one of Rio's most flamboyant venues.

Visually, it's a stunning combination.

On Saturday at the Sambodromo, the gold-medal men's team archery final pitted three archers from the U.S. against three archers from South Korea. They stood at the end of a long corridor, two colorful targets 70 meters away, with a huge set of Olympic rings above them. Favelas provided the backdrop, and Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue could be seen up high and to the right, embracing the city with its outstretched arms.

It was as loud as a samba venue, too–but only in stretches.

Thundersticks were allowed–and the Korean throngs certainly got the memo–but each time an archer drew his bow, urgent "shushing" was followed by a severe hush and a whir as his thin, barreled arrow flew up to 160 miles per hour. The day was calm, scorching hot, and everyone waited for a soft "thwap" to indicate that the arrow's flight had ended, usually inside the 10-point ring in the dead center of the target.

The margin for error at the Olympic level is so minuscule, that even a "9" elicited a massive "ooh" and a collective wince.

On the left, the scene at the Sambodromo during the men's archery final. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports. On the right, what the Sambodromo looks like during Carnival. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

To reach the Olympics, U.S. team member Zach Garrett, 21, trained eight hours a day, six days a week. When someone spends that much time aiming a pointed stick at a small circle with absolutely minimal movement–it's hard not to be intrigued. Amid the stillness, the hushes, the whirs, the long breaks, and then more matches, what is he thinking?

"When I walked into the stadium, the crowd disappeared," Garrett said. "And when I'm aiming, it doesn't look there's anything besides the gold of the target. You hear your teammates. You hear your coach. And that's it. I see the rest of the rings but nothing registers–except for exactly where your point is sitting. It's such tunnel-vision on the line."

Like Garrett, U.S. teammate Jake Kaminski has to tune out everything inessential. Not so for his brother, Matt. A fair-skinned and lanky man wearing white sunglasses, a star-spangled bandana, and a red shirt, Matt Kaminski was the lone member of Jake's family to fly to Rio to watch him compete. "I can't imagine being under that much pressure," Matt said. "I'm a musician, and when I'm onstage, I feed off the crowd's energy and channel it to do what I do best. I can't imagine performing in front of everybody in silence."

Asked whether Jake had given him his red USA shirt with Kaminski screened on the back, he told the story, a bit awkwardly, of how Jake had given it to him the last time they saw each other, at their sister's funeral.

"Jake said, 'I know this isn't exactly the best place, but here,'" he said. Matt then explained how their late sister, Liz, was big on self-actualization–seeing yourself be the thing you wanted to become–and how her philosophy had inspired Jake's tattoo on his left hand, which is invisible to fans but impossible for Jake to ignore every time he lifts his bow. In all caps, it reads: "I AM."

As the quarterfinal against Indonesia grew near, Matt's hands trembled with anticipation so he picked up a camera–it was Liz's Canon–and shot some stills. As four years' worth of Jake's dreams rode on each arrow, Matt's face finally relaxed when Indonesia's first three arrows landed on rings marked 7, 7, and 8.

"As they're drawing back, you just want it to be perfect every time," Matt said.

Asked whether he had been an archer himself, Matt said no, then explained how their dad had been chief of the volunteer fire department in Elma, New York, which had a biennial fundraiser. One year, their father bought raffle tickets in hopes of winning a fishing boat. He won, and the package came with an archery bow.

When Jake was about 7 and Matt was 16, they set up hay bales in the back yard. "I showed him how to nock the arrow," Matt said. "I took a shot and my arrow went into the forest. But Jake hit the bullseye on the first try. It was incredible. By the time he was 10, he said he'd make it to the Olympics. I said, 'Of course you are. Keep the dream alive.' You want to be supportive, but it also goes back to 'I AM:' see yourself in the position you want to be in."

By 4:30 p.m. the U.S. had beaten China in the semifinals and was guaranteed a medal. Less than an hour later, however, South Korea shot nearly perfectly in the final. Fifteen of Korea's 18 arrows hit the ten-point circle. The U.S. performed well, but earned silver for the second Games in a row.

The U.S. men's archery team (Brady Ellison (left) and Zach Garrett (middle) and Jake Kaminski) won a silver medal on Saturday. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After the medal ceremony, Kaminski did interviews. Asked how he would end the sentence "I AM" now that the silver had been draped over his neck, he replied: "I'm a champion. I am a champion. I am an individual who has overcome adversity to repeat a performance [in London 2012] that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

He mentioned his sister Liz, who died from systemic melanoma and left four young daughters who were subsequently adopted by a family in western New York. He confirmed Liz's influence on his mental process, and its impetus for the "I AM" tattoo, which he had inked in 2007.

"It's an affirmation, a statement that "I AM" here, period," he said. "Not "I WANT."

In addition to losing his sister, he has a divorce pending after five years of marriage.

The silver, he said, signified, "Perseverance, dedication, hard work, faith. I did it by myself. I did it for myself. A totally different meaning that London, for sure."

Kaminski and the rest of the U.S. men will vie for individual medals starting on Tuesday. And wherever Tokyo ends up staging Olympic archery in 2020–in a sumo ring, perhaps, given that archery at the 2012 Games in London was held at the Lord's Cricket Ground–he plans to be there. "Oh yeah, for sure," Kaminski said. "I'm not done."

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