Rivals all of a quiver as Barber targets taking a bow in 2012

Alan Hubbard talks to the precocious 15-year-old schoolboy who is in a class of his own when it comes to archery
Click to follow
The Independent Online

From William the Conqueror to William Tell, via a few war-whooping twangs from Geronimo, bows and arrows have been among man's most enduring pursuits. Yet the long-established sport of archery is not one which has had the great British public all of a quiver, despite its Robin Hood romanticism. It is among the most ancient of all Britain's sporting activities, dating back competitively to the Middle Ages, with the first Grand National Archery meeting held at York in 1844. Many of today's clubs had their beginnings on the country lawns of Victorian England, although archery did not make the Olympics in its modern form until 1972.

The modicum of publicity it has received here in recent years is largely down to the lively Shropshire lass Alison Williamson, 35, four times an Olympian and a bronze medallist in Athens. Simon Terry, who has returned as a contender for Beijing, also won two bronzes in Barcelona, but about the only time archery got the tabloid treatment was when Williamson posed semi-naked in 1996 with a strategically placed bow and arrow, for photos that were displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. All tastefully done, but there was a sharp intake of breath from the blazers and blazerettes.

The bow belle and other leading archers among the 32,000 practitioners who belong to the Grand National Archery Society are resigned to scant recognition for their endeavours, which this year include a World Championship bronze medal for Alan Wills from Cumbria and becoming one of only two sports – sailing is the other – already to have achieved its full quota of qualifying places (six) for Beijing.

It may well be that British archery's outstanding prodigy, Tom Barber, fills one of them, although he is only 15 (16 next month), after he became the first British junior archer to win medals, a gold and two silvers, at a major international event, the Europa Cup. But if Beijing may prove a tad premature, what a prospect he must be for London 2012. Team GB's performance manager, Barry Eley, describes him as "a very exciting talent, and just the right age for 2012, although he's upbeat about Beijing, and actually could make it, as he is ranked fourth or fifth among our seniors. But 2012 is the target for him. His attitude and commitment are spot-on".

That much is apparent when talking to one of the most single-minded, self-assured youngsters we have encountered in any sport. Most precocious talent is spotted by scouts. In Barber's case it was the Scouts. His father, Tim, was a county-standard archer, and 10-year-old Tom first tried his hand at the sport at a session with the local Scout troop in Bungay, Suffolk.

"I really enjoyed it," he says, "and my Christmas present that year was a bow, which I twanged a few times a day just for fun for about six months. Then I joined a local club, Thorpe Hamlet Jun-iors, got a more expensive bow and managed to get some decent results in county competitions. I seemed to have some sort of talent for it, but I suppose the biggest factor was the attitude, the will to work and to put the hours in. You have to have the desire within yourself to improve. Although I follow most sports, archery is the only one I have really been involved in."

He says he became quite competitive and there was always something he was aiming for – apart from the target 70 metres away. "The next Christmas I got an aluminium bow called a 'riser' [a term which relates to the handle] and the following summer I reached national level, winning my age group in the National Junior Championships for the Under-12s. That's when I decided I really wanted to get to the top. But I had no idea then of the hard work required to become an Olympic athlete." He eventually reached the junior national squad, "and this really opened my eyes as to what was required". His progression continued under Britain's new head coach, Peter Suk, from Korea. "He has been the biggest influence on my archery career. The Koreans are the best in the world and he has shown us what you need to get to the top and how to conduct yourselves in life. Since he started work in 2005, I don't think it's a coincidence that both senior and junior national teams have climbed to the top level."

At a recent European Grand Prix in Ukraine, the British juniors came back with nine medals, including Barber's gold and silvers. He is not short of ambition. "My long-term goal is to win an Olympic gold. I don't know in which Games because I am young enough to compete in a few yet, but I would like to be the first archer in history to successfully defend his title. Having the Olympics at Lord's in 2012 is going to be tremendously exciting. I believe I am capable of qualifying for Beijing if I keep on improving and getting good scores, and I'd like to think I could be a medal contender there. But when London comes around I'll be 20 and obviously more mature." He is on a "small amount" of Lottery funding but this will increase with his results.

Barber still attends Bungay High School – "they have been very helpful in allowing me time off, as long as I catch up with the work" – and takes his GCSEs next year. He is contemplating a career in naval engineering, knowing that bows and arrows bring no outrageous fortune.

"What excites me about this sport is the intensity of the competition. You have to fire off 12 arrows within four minutes in the head-to-head rounds and it is great to watch. It is rather like matchplay when you shoot against another archer ranked either higher or lower than yourself on a knockout basis. What you need is a good general control of the back, obviously hand-eye co-ordination and a strong nerve."

The left-handed Barber is tall for his age (6ft 2in) but he says this is not necessarily an advantage. "Generally being shorter, with shorter arms, is ideal, because the arrows are long and heavy." Is it an expensive sport? "Not compared to things like horse riding. Obviously it can be if you want all the best equipment, but if you are happy with just the necessities,no it isn't."

There has been a surge of interest in the sport after Williamson became Britain's first female Olympic medallist since 1908 – when contestants, who included the Wimbledon tennis champion Lottie Dod, shot their arrows in ankle-length skirts. No one really talks about it, but another reason is that the ban on handguns has seen several competitors drift across to archery from shooting. Says Eley: "As a sport we always wondered what we could do if we had proper UK Sport funding. We now employ one of the world's top coaches and have the back-up facilities we need to produce good results."

Consequently Britain now has a quiverful of world-class archers in both recurve (the Olympic discipline) and compound – the difference is in the type of bow. These days they are hi-tech and made of aluminium or carbon fibre with stabilisers, sights, an arrow rest and grips, and can cost up to £1,000. 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 young Tom has his eye on. Geronimo!

Tom Barber receives funding through UK Sport's World Class Pathway programme, supported by the National Lottery. The ArcheryWorld Cup in Dover was supported by a National Lottery grant through UK Sport's World Class Events programme

Message from an icon: Alison Williamson

Tom is a very determined young archer who trains hard and listens to what his coaches are telling him. He has the ability to achieve some truly great results on the world stage, and I would be surprised if he is not on the podium in London in 2012.

Tom puts in the hours he needs to compete at the highest level and has a good balance with schoolwork, which is really important as he goes into his GCSEs year. I think Beijing may be too soon for Tom and I would like to see him gain experience of competing at a senior Europeans or Worlds before being thrown in at the deep end. But if he does qualify next year I know he will put everything into the competition to come out with a good result.

Tom is very fortunate to have the support and backing of his parents and his school, who allow him to combine his schoolwork with sport, and he has also come into a great system as he prepares to make the transition to the senior ranks, as National Lottery funding invested in the sport allows for overseas training and competition – the juniors already get so much more than I did when I first started out.

As for myself, I am aiming to compete in Beijing next year, which will be my fifth Olympic Games. Before Athens I swore that 2004 would be my last Olympics and I'm saying that again for Beijing.

So while I won't completely rule London out, I think there's only a very slim chance I will compete, although I will definitely be involved in some capacity as I have also been coaching within the sport and I never say never.

Alison Williamson won Olympic bronze in Athens in 2004

The class of 2006: Anthony Ogogo, light-welterweight boxer

The past 12 months have been pretty tough for me, with wrist and knuckle injuries – as well as losing crucial matches on points where I thought I should have won.

This is the first year I have boxed as a senior and I would definitely say I'm in a transitional phase – some boxers tend to move up to senior matches quickly because they have the strength to compete against older boxers, but my game is much more focused on skill and speed with my footwork, so my learning curve is taking a little longer.

At times I've felt very down when results have not gone to plan but I have always managed to pull myself up again and carry on training and find new goals to work towards. Now I feel I am moving in the right direction.

My first senior fight was in February when England fought Poland. It was a difficult trip for me as I fought the Polish captain, who has over 180 fights under his belt. I gave it a good shot and finished 12-12 on points but I guess home advantage swayed his wayas he was announced the winner.

I then went to the European Junior Championships, which was my last junior bout, and again I was disappointed to lose to a home boxer, this time a Serbian, and felt I should have been awarded more points.

I always try to disregard the last fight, go back to the drawing board and work hard towards the next fight rather than sitting around thinking about what's gone wrong.

I've been fortunate that with my injuries I've been able to make use of English Institute of Sport facilities in Sheffield, and I've also come out of college to train full-time thanks to National Lottery funding.

I am hoping to go to the Olympic qualifiers later this year. I aim to follow in the footsteps of my idols – Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard – who both won Olympic gold medals, and if I am not fortunate enough to go to Beijing next year I will be aiming for London in 2012, when I will be the perfect age, 23. It's been my dream since I put on a pair of boxing gloves to win Olympic gold, and I have no intention of letting anything get in my way.

Timeline

September 2006: At the World Junior Championships in Morocco, Ogogo loses to Cuban Julio Iglesias in the prelims.

February 2007: In his first senior international match, Ogogo is unfortunate to lose to Poland captain Michal Starbala.

April 2007: Ogogo loses on points to the Ukrainian Vitaliy Knostantinov.

April 2007: Ogogo returns to England and spars with England football captain John Terry for a promotion.

July 2007: At the European Junior Championships in Serbia, Ogogo is unlucky against home favourite Aleksandar Spirko in the prelims.

Comments