Girl with gold fingers

Williamson sets sights on the ultimate prize in an ancient but unheralded sport
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The Independent Online

Archery is not one of those activities which has the great British public all of a quiver. When it comes to profile, it is right down there in the nether regions of the Dr Martens League, despite its Robin Hood romanticism.

Yet it is among the most ancient and venerable of all Britain's sporting pursuits, dating back competitively to the middle ages with the first Grand National Archery meeting held at York in 1844. Many of the clubs of today had their beginnings on the country lawns of Victorian England, although archery did not make the Olympics until 1968.

Alison Williamson has competed in two of those Games. She was eighth in Barcelona in 1992 and 10th in Atlanta four years ago. She will be mightily disappointed if she is not among the medals in Sydney, as currently only the Korean world champion, Ee Kyung-Lee (known simply to her rivals as Miss Lee), stands above her.

Dead clever, these Koreans. They've honed in on a multitude of away-from-the-mainstream sports, bringing in international expertise and developing skills with government money, which means they will probably be taking medals home from Sydney by the sackful. "Archery is now practically the national sport in Korea," Williamson says, somewhat wistfully. "It's almost as big as football out there."

Here, archery is as small as a squash ball. Williamson and the other top-flight archers among the 20,000 practitioners who belong to the Grand National Archery Society are resigned to scant recognition for their endeavours. Williamson reckons that had she been in a higher- profile sport, after 14 years of international excellence in competitions from Cuba to Slovenia she would at least have an MBE - plus a few bob in the bank.

Bows and arrows have brought no outrageous fortune for the 28-year-old farrier's daughter from the Shropshire hamlet of Chelmick, near Church Stretton. Although most of her globetrotting to international events is subsidised, it still costs her upwards of £8,000-a-year to compete. Unlike the majority of her élite sporting contemporaries at Lilleshall, where she practises on the indoor range during the winter (in the summer it's her back garden) the only way she's likely to get any Lottery money is if her numbers come up. In most other sports, as the world No 2, she would be into five figures, but her governing body's application for funding from the World Class Performance Programme was rejected two years ago because it did not meet the criteria, and has yet to be resubmitted.

Fortunately, Williamson's frustration has been eased by assistance from the British Olympic Association, special funding from UK Sport and a bit of sponsorship, but she still feels somewhat aggrieved that had she been Welsh or Scottish there would have been no argument about Lottery funding. "The trouble is, our governing body doesn't have the money to appoint the professional expertise to sort out these things," she said. "It really is an amateur sport, everyone, including the coaches, is a volunteer and sadly we just don't seem to have moved on. All the politics and all the bullshit are just as they were years ago."

Williamson has only just paid off the debts incurred from her Atlanta preparations, but at least she no longer has to fit in her training around part-time jobs, which have included secretarial temping and care assistance. It also helps that she still lives at home with mum and dad, Sue and Tom, who, as archers themselves and founders of a local club, encouraged her to take up the sport as a six-year-old and also supported her through a four-and-a-half-year archery scholarship at Arizona State University. "We're just not pushy enough," says Williamson. "As a sport, we should blow our trumpet more."

The modicum of publicity arch-ery has received in recent years is largely down to her. About the only time it got the tabloid treatment was when she took her top off in 1996, posing semi-naked with other young Olympians, and a strategically-placed bow and arrow, for photos which were displayed in the National Portrait Gallery.

All tastefully done, but there was a sharp intake of breath from the blazers and blazerettes, not to mention her father, who is coach to the British junior team. "A bit of a prude," she grinned. But she remains unabashed, believing that almost anything goes when it comes to raising the sport's profile.

More recently she helped it to hit the headlines when she took on and beat the American movie actress Geena Davis in a head-to-head shoot-out at a pre-Games tournament staged at the Olympic venue of Homebush, in Sydney.

Not that Williamson got much of a write-up, no more than she did when she won the silver medal at last year's World Championships in France. The stories were all about the star of Thelma and Louise failing to achieve her dream of qualifying for the Olympics.

Nevertheless, her conqueror was sympathetic. "For a relative novice with only three years' experience in the sport, she's pretty good. But it would have been embarrassing had I lost to her. It must have been difficult for her, because it's hard to know how to act around celebrities, but she certainly helped to raise the image of the sport."

So far Williamson is Britain's only female qualifier for Sydney, although she has yet to be formally selected, another quirk of the administration. But it is unthinkable that she will not be aiming her £1,000 carbon-fibre bow at the target 70 metres away on the opening day of the Games. She is still feeling the effect of recent surgery on her right shoulder, which required ripped cartilage to be pinned to the bone, and literally is not pulling her weight at the moment. "But I'll be fine for Sydney," she promises.

A palm-size computer, which charts the trajectory of every one of the 200 arrows she fires daily, is one of the hi-tech aids which she hopes will propel her towards the Olympic rostrum as one of Britain's first medallists of the Games. It's all about getting the right balance; a tad off and one misdirected arrow can mean the difference between first place, and 38th."I'm very competitive in everything I do," she says. "It has been my lifelong goal to win an Olympic medal and I know I'm going to do it."

The layman may call the 8cm circle in the target the bull's-eye, but to the archer it is the gold. And that's precisely what Williamson has her eye on in Sydney.