Bernardo’s blog: Navigating the uncertainty of an odd Olympic year

Bernardo Oliveira competes at the Monterrey 2021 Pan American Championships.

This blog is written by Bernardo Oliveira, giving an insight into his life as an elite archer with the Brazilian national team. 

For the first time in the history of the sport, the Hyundai World Archery Championships and the archery events at the Olympic Games will take place in the same year.

The championships have taken place in the same season as the Games before. In 1952, archers travelled to Brussels to contest world titles, while the Games were held in Helsinki – but archery was absent and didn’t return to the programme until two years later.

What a feat it would be if a newly crowned Olympic Champion could add another of the sport’s most important titles in 2021.

An San, one of the two individual winners along with Turkey’s Mete Gazoz, is poised for greatness after claiming three gold medals in Tokyo. A championship individual gold for the 20-year-old, considering her country’s approach to the season, would make the accomplishment even more significant.

Of all the oddities of the pandemic, one of the most astonishing developments to me was Korea’s decision to forgo the Hyundai Archery World Cup. 

The nation did this to avoid the 14-day hotel quarantine required to re-enter Korea, which would have resulted in the loss of valuable training time to prepare for the Olympics. But it also resulted in them missing valuable competition experience leading up to the Games – not exactly the ideal scenario when preparing for the most important event on the calendar.

Even before Korea won four of the five available gold medals, there was no doubt they made the right decision. Korea had already secured a full slate of quotas for Tokyo, and they had plenty of high-level competitors within their peninsula to ensure they’d be as sharp as we’ve come to expect.

An San celebrates at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

But for other countries, there was a lot at stake ahead of the Games – as well as some hurdles that simply couldn’t have been foreseen.

Travel and visas became difficult. In Brazil, we had to abort our trip to Guatemala City, for the first leg of the international circuit, on the very day we were going to travel because of changing restrictions.

As we do before each competition, the team that was going to the competition met at the national training centre in Rio de Janiero one week before departure.

Things were already different than initially planned: we were supposed to train together for the first leg of our team trials that would choose the team for Pari, where the final Olympic qualifying tournament and third stage of the international circuit took place.

But the trials were called off to reduce the number of people at the facility, and to spare some archers from the exposure that comes with travelling. Unlike Korea and a handful of other countries, we still had quotas to win and believed there was value in leaving the country for international tournaments.

A couple of days into our preparation week in Rio, though, we learned there was a possibility Guatemala’s borders could be closed to visitors from Brazil.

We tried to get updates but found nothing. On the day of our trip, we received an email from the organisers of the event apologising and confirming that we shouldn’t travel as it was very unlikely we would be allowed to enter.

Brazil competes at the third stage of the 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Paris, France.

How do you respond to that? At first, you simply don’t want to believe it. It was like March 2020 all over again: having gone through the preparation for a new season, ready to travel and compete. In a second, it was all gone.

Instead of travelling abroad to my first Hyundai Archery World Cup event in nearly two years, I simply flew back to my hometown. Normally returning home is a good feeling, but in this case, it just felt awkward.

It’s such a bad feeling to know you aren’t where you’re supposed to be.

Later that week, I followed the competition closely from afar. Seeing the World Archery content on social media felt like I had missed a party because I was grounded.

But that didn’t keep me from seeing the positives. The international outdoor circuit was finally back! I could barely believe it.

It was good to have a glimpse at how other archers are doing and to see Angel Alvarado, from Mexico, win mixed team gold and individual bronze. His result added importance to the only international competition we had up until that point: the Pan American Championships in Monterrey. But it wasn’t long before we realised it was unlikely we’d join him, and the rest of the field, at the stage in Lausanne, either.

So we shifted our focus to Paris. The final qualification tournament.

We had to be in the French capital for that event, no matter what. And we weren’t the only country in this situation. Qualifying for the Olympics is always a challenge, but this season came with an entirely new set of obstacles. These difficulties extended to the fans as well – more specifically, the absence of them.

Having experienced what it is like to compete at the Olympics in my home country, I can’t help but feel sad that the stands were empty in Tokyo. 

I watched my compatriots at the Games from afar. We didn’t manage to qualify a full team in Paris. But returning to the competition field, roomier due to social distancing, was a triumph in itself.

Hopefully next year, 2022, will be the year in which normalcy returns. Busy shooting lines and a packed international calendar.

Fingers crossed.