Alison Williamson: Olympic elf warning

Shropshire archer targets gold at fourth attempt as Hollywood enhances her sport's appeal
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Alison Williamson is already an Olympian champion - as far as she can remember, that is. Sitting in the shade of the Peyia Stadium at the end of three hours of target practice in the morning sun in Cyprus, the 32-year-old archer could not recall for certain whether she had won a gold medal in her younger days as a competitor at the Wenlock Olympian Games.

Alison Williamson is already an Olympian champion - as far as she can remember, that is. Sitting in the shade of the Peyia Stadium at the end of three hours of target practice in the morning sun in Cyprus, the 32-year-old archer could not recall for certain whether she had won a gold medal in her younger days as a competitor at the Wenlock Olympian Games. "Probably," she said. "It was a long time ago; I would have been a teenager then. I competed there a few times. I'm pretty sure I did win."

The veteran of the British Olympic archery team is a Shropshire lass - a native of Church Stretton, 13 miles from Much Wenlock, where Dr William Penny Brookes founded the Olympian Games that have taken place there since 1850. Baron Pierre de Coubertin travelled from Paris to see them in 1890, six years before he managed to revive the Olympic Games on Greek soil.

On Thursday, the day before the 2004 Games officially open, Williamson will be competing in the ranking round for the women's individual event in the Panathinaiko Stadium, the marble arena in which the first Olympic Games of the modern era were held in 1896. It will be her fourth Olympic Games and, naturally, she would like a medal to replace the Wenlock Olympian one that has, presumably, gone missing down the passing years.

She was strongly fancied to win one in Sydney four years ago, until she encountered the formidable Yun Mi-Jin in the last 16. The 17-year-old South Korean produced a near-perfect display, including 11 dead centres out of 18 shots. She went on to take the gold medal. Williamson proceeded to make her way to the nearest toilet and locked herself inside for half an hour.

Four years on, the bitter disappointment has been flushed from her system. "I really feel a bit more calm going into Athens," she said. "I haven't got the pressure I had four years ago. I'd got a silver medal at the world championships the year before and people were expecting a repeat performance in Sydney. It doesn't work like that at the Olympics."

Expectations were elevated even higher after Williamson happened to famously defeat Geena Davis - yes, the same Geena Davis who won an Oscar for her performance in The Accidental Tourist in 1998. The Hollywood actress reached the semi-finals at the US Olympic trials in 1999, a performance which earned her a wildcard entry to the Sydney Golden Arrow tournament, where she lost in the first round to Williamson, 160 points to 120.

"I don't know if she's still competing," Williamson said. "She certainly wasn't bad, for someone who'd just started. To go from a complete beginner to trying out for an Olympic team is pretty remarkable really.

"It's quite weird, thinking about it now when you see her in films. At competitions, she'd just be like a regular competitor. I remember one time she walked by and said, 'Hi, Alison! How are you?' It was a bit surreal."

Given her background, Davis would have been a natural for the role of the crack elf bowman Legolas in The Return of the King, the concluding part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that claimed 11 Oscars this year and which, it seems, has been responsible for a grassroots boom in British archery. Membership of British clubs has risen by 10 per cent in the past 12 months.

"My mum runs the junior section at our club, Long Mynd Archers in Church Stretton," Williamson said, "and we've taken on a lot of beginners this year. They had a 'have a go' section at the recent world junior championships at Lilleshall and I watched this little six-year-old boy shoot an arrow into the target, then hold up his bow up and cry, 'I am Legolas'. I was laughing my head off.

"It is interesting, though, because I think Troy has archery, and the new King Arthur film, the one with Keira Knightley."

Whether Ms Knightley gets the chance to bend an arrow like Williamson remains to be seen. Time will tell, too, whether Ms Williamson can follow in the arrow-marks of Lottie Dod.

A descendant of Sir Anthony Dod of Edge, who commanded King Henry V's victorious army of bowmen at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, she won a silver medal as an archer at the London Olympics in 1908.

She also won five Wimbledon singles titles - the first at the age of 15, two years younger than Maria Sharapova was when she triumphed on Centre Court last month.

Williamson, as it happens, also has a second string to her sporting bow. She competes as a runner in road races. "I'd like to do the London Marathon," she said. "I've entered the ballot before, but failed to get a place."

If she were to strike Olympic gold in Athens, the Shropshire Olympian would most likely get a gilt-edged invitation to parade through the streets of London next spring.

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