Is there a new headline category on the world circuit?
There are four main competition categories in international archery: recurve men, recurve women, compound men and compound women.
The status is equal, the prize money is equal (and has always been) and the exposure is equal.
But sport isn’t equal – you have good matches, you have bad matches, you have surprises and upsets and outcomes. And every year, one of the four competition categories is simply more interesting than the rest.
In 2021, that was the compound women.
And it is great news.
In the wider world, women’s sport has received something of an equality push, gaining more screen time and exposure.
Archery’s mixed team event made its debut at the Olympics this summer, too.
But while there’s long been gender equality in archery’s major events, there has also been a disparity in the number – and depth of quality at the top – of male and female compound archers competing in them.
In 2021, there was a marked change.
The compound women’s category is almost invariably the smallest field at a stage of the Hyundai Archery World Cup, though not by much. Women usually make up 45% of the compound athletes. (It’s held pretty strong for about a decade, increasing from about 35% at the start of the circuit in 2006.)
What’s really changed is the number of those archers who are hitting scores that can contend for the podium.
Comparing the three Hyundai Archery World Cup stages in 2021 against the first three in 2019 (the fourth was really windy, so worth discounting), there’s been a significant increase in the percentage of compound women posting big scores in qualifying.
On average in 2019, 60% hit 680 and 36% made 690 points.
Two years later, after the pandemic hiatus, 72% are achieving 680 and 48% are at 690 or more.
But why does this matter? Events aren’t won on qualifying results. They’re won on matchplay.
Well… because at every single one of these events, the archer who went on to take individual gold posted a qualifying result of at least 690. So it’s still an excellent indicator of who has the level to lift a trophy.
And, right now, there are simply more compound women who do.
Sara Lopez won her record sixth Hyundai Archery World Cup trophy in 2021 and she will be remembered, if she is not already, as the best compound woman of all time (for a very long time).
Ahead of the final and her winning her first-ever world championship, the 26-year-old said:
“The focus of the last few years has been… ‘Who can dethrone Sara?’”
“It’s harder for me to win now because the level has gotten better,” she continued. “I don’t think it’s because I’ve gotten worse.”
“That was the goal, that we all get better together.”
That statement, it turns out, is pretty much spot on. A quick glance at the statistics shows that Sara’s been averaging around 9.70 points per arrow and winning in the high 80% of her matches year-in, year-out since 2015.
But after a windy start to the season at the Pan Americans in Mexico, where Lopez says she contracted target panic, opponents arguably pushed the world number one harder than ever before. There was the excellent final against teammate Alejandra Usquiano in Paris – and some brilliant matches at both tournaments in Yankton.
The Colombian archer’s era of dominance may well be ending.
Lopez’s double win in Yankton (worlds, World Cup Final) to close the season is her biggest achievement to date. Not just because of the titles themselves but because, unlike in 2018 when she was completely unbeaten and in a competitive sphere of her own, there were others who could have taken them.
The next three names on the world ranking list – Tanja Gellenthien, Toja Ellison and Jyothi Surekha Vennam – all shot their best seasons, statistically, in 2021.
They’re all now around that 9.70 average and in the same realm of results as Lopez.
Vennam shot the first-ever televised 150-point match for the category at the world championships. (Which was quickly then matched by Lopez in the same session.)
Gellenthien won the Europeans and her first stage of the Hyundai Archery World cup this season.
Ellison produced arguably the best match of the year when she ran Sara the whole way in the gold medal match at the Hyundai Archery World Cup Final.
And there are plenty more pushing for a place among those elite.
This past season was great for archery, an important return after the pandemic, but it was especially fantastic for the compound women’s competition. Let’s hope 2022 is just as good.