I recently got asked “who is the best archer in the world?” … and the answer should be easy, whoever is world champion right now. But that answer doesn’t sit well with me. We are the sport that exemplifies the “art of repetition” so whoever is best needs to have been the best for a considerable period of time … and that, for me, is a very easy choice.
Ki BoBae is from South Korea and right there you already know this is going to be a list of superlatives. Three-time Olympic gold medalist with four Olympic medals overall makes her one of the most decorated Olympic archers of all time. In addition she was a three-time winner at the Archery World Cup finals. She has three times held the position as women’s world number one in the World Archery Rankings. And to prove I’m not the only one who feels she’s the best, Bow International magazine named her Archer of the Decade 2010-2019 in issue 140.
Although I was present early in her career, I saw her win the Bronze medal at the 2010 World Cup in Edinburgh, for me the journey with Ki BoBae begins with the 2012 Olympics. The final was shot at Lords Cricket ground in extremely windy conditions. Ki was being matched shot for shot by Mexican Aida Roman. After the 5th set, the match was tied 5-5 meaning it came down to a 1 arrow shoot off. Shooting first Ki scored an 8 almost on the 9 line. Fighting the swirling wind Roman also scored an 8 but more centrally in the ring meaning Ki was closer to the centre and so won. Watch the entire 16 minute match here … (breathing at times optional.)
In a post match interview when asked about the one arrow shoot off, with her voice cracking with emotion, she apologised saying “A Korean does not shoot an 8”. I think we can take that to mean “I don’t shoot an 8!” Strong in this one, the desire for perfection is!
For the next 2 years Ki was a regular in World Cup stages but in 2014 lost her edge and found herself off the international squad and watching the Asian Games from the commentary booth. What happened next was, if you were a Korean female archer facing Ki in competition, pretty terrifying. She found her motivation…
“… if I cannot participate in international competition, I would smash all the domestic competitions instead,” Ki said. “I decided to show everybody that I wasn’t dead yet.”
What followed was a reign of terror on the domestic professional circuit where Ki literally demolished opponent after opponent with a relentless string of wins that even had the hardened Korean archery fraternity going “Daaaaamn!“. 2015 unsurprisingly saw her back on the Korean international team.
Returning to international competition, she did not let up. Ki was the women’s recurve world champion in 2015 and from 2015 to 2017 she held the world record score for the women’s WA720 (72 arrows at 70m on a 122cm face).
Ki, as part of the ladies recurve team at the 2016 Rio games took gold over Russia securing her third Olympic gold medal. With the stage set for drama no matter what happened … Ki’s bid to become the first Olympic archer to retain their Olympic title was ended by teammate Chang Hye-jin in the semi-finals. Chang outshot Ki in what some felt (me included – there was some bad language) was an upset. Ki went on to beat Mexican Alejandra Valencia to win what was for her, a consolation bronze medal.
Winning back to back World Cup finals in 2016 and 2017, it looked like she was back to dominating form. And in what was to be her last international appearance, the Dhaka 2017 Asian Archery Championships (24th-30th November 2017), she took an individual bronze and anchored the ladies recurve team for the gold.
Towards the end of 2017, at a time where Ki BoBae was regularly in the Korean sporting news, was being recognized in the street and people attended events specifically to see her, she got married with the intention of starting a family. With her 1st pregnancy running through the 2018 season, this saw Ki fade from the competitive scene.
Returning in 2019 she struggling to combine family life with practice. While she’s not the first international archer to be a parent and compete, it’s not the same in Korea. There the competition is beyond cutthroat and where its ‘perform now or adios muchachos!’ With archery how having to share her focus and time, Ki’s performance became mortal. There were some emotional interviews after some very substandard competitions in 2019 (substandard for the perfectionist in her) … proving that the only way to go when you are The Best is eventually down.
The 2019 comeback had been with the intention of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but in the piranha fish tank of Korean archery, Ki was struggling. She was knocked out of the trials in September 2019 coming just 37th of 64. Its worth remembering that’s 37th where its been said 50 of the top 100 archers in the world are Korean.
(Google Translate horribly mangles this article, but I think the 2019 season began just 3 months after the birth of her daughter and Ki struggled to get into shape … read the article here – warning, its in Korean and google translate is not kind).
As of August 2020 there’s no word on what the future holds for Ki.
Given her sheer dominance 2011 till 2017, she is and will remain for me the most successful archer ever to have strung a bow … and personally I’m not counting her out yet. There’s just too much determination and will to win wrapped up in that 5’6″, 123lbs frame. While I have no information at this time to substantiate this, Korea will most likely have another set of Olympic trials for Tokyo 2021. If they do, I fully expect, well .. fervently hope .. to see her on the line doing what she does best … winning!
Videos of Ki Bo Bae in action:
Ki BoBae shot in slow motion
Ki BoBae archery technique evolution (2010-2017)
World Cup 2010 Edinburgh v Yun Ok Hee
World Cup 2010 Edinburgh v Justyna Mospinek – Bronze medal match
Ki BoBae throwing the first pitch in a baseball game … with a bow!
Note: Much of the above information was gathered from Korean websites. I used machine translation (MT) to get the information and its no exaggeration to say Google Translate struggles with Korean. If you see anything majorly wrong in the above, please let me know via our contact form and I will correct.