Photo by Lee Woolcock
Photo by Lee Woolcock
Nestled against the walls of Montjuïc Castle, on the same lawn where people fight for a good spot to watch the summer film screenings at Sala Montjuïc, is the shooting range of the Club Arc Montjuïc. Climb up there during the day and you are likely to find Jordi Falgueras, the Club’s president, teaching one of his students how to shoot an arrow from a bow. Come rain or shine.
With all his knowledge and enthusiasm about archery, Falgueras is the first to say that archery is a “somewhat forgotten sport about which people only talk when recalling who lit the Olympic cauldron in the Barcelona ‘92 Olympic Games”—a reference to the Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo and his famous arrow shot from the centre of the Olympic stadium at the opening ceremony.
And yet, as well as being part of the mythologies of many cultures—think, for example, of the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo, the Romans Diana and Cupid, or the legends of William Tell and Robin Hood—it is also an ancient practice, deep rooted in most civilisations across the world. Arrowheads were apparently invented in the late Paleolithic period, around 64,000 years ago, for hunting and defence purposes. The oldest Neolithic bow found to date in Europe was discovered in 2012 by researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona at an archaeological site near the lake of Banyoles; it is thought to date from between 5400 and 5200 BCE. Classical civilisations counted large numbers of bowmen in their armies, on foot as well as mounted. In northern and western Europe, bows continued to be the main weapon in warfare until the end of the Middle Ages, but the development of firearms would eventually render them obsolete.
In the late 18th century, however, the gothic and medieval revival brought with it a new interest in archery amongst the English gentry. Archery societies with strict entry criteria were set up across England, revolving around extravagant, ritualised contests and gatherings at which local elites displayed their wealth and strengthened their social networks. The activity also became extremely popular with women who, allowed to take part in competitions, took the opportunity to display their charms as well as their talent. Archery thus became an important form of introduction, flirtation, courting and seduction. A similar revival took place in the US after the end of the Civil War (1861-65).
While other activities have since become more popular for status display and socialising, archery has consolidated itself as a competition sport. It has been included in 15 Olympic Games since 1900, with South Korea winning a total of 36 medals, including 21 gold medals, to date.
Some would argue, however, that the skill of handling a bow and shooting an arrow is not a sport but an art. In recent times, archery has gained new protagonism with the help of the books and film version of The Hunger Games (2012) as well as the hit TV series Game of Thrones. Falgueras said the number of people interested in taking classes increased significantly when the 2012 film starring Jennifer Lawrence came out. “People come in waves and after The Hunger Games there was a wave of young women.”
That was the case with 14-year-old Laura Pardina, who joined the Club Arc Montjuïc in January 2013, inspired by the heroine of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. “She was reading the books and then she wanted to have a bow,” said Laura’s mother. But things are not as simple as that. Bows are weapons after all, and in Spain you need a licence to buy and use one. Furthermore, the practice of archery is only allowed within the premises of a club such as Montjuïc. Thus, Laura has since become a proper archer.
Club Arc Montjuïc was founded in March 1984 by a group of bowmen who would informally get together to practise in Montjuïc’s shooting range. Today, over 30 years on, the Club has over 290 members of all ages. The annual membership fee for adults is €130 but there are special prices for families and members under 18. Beginners courses are also available at €180 for adults over the age of 16, involving five 2-hour sessions and a diploma from the Catalan Federation of Archery upon completion. The club itself takes care of the learning permits, insurance and, eventually, of the archer’s licence, all issued by the Catalan Archery Federation. You can sign up for a course by filling in the form available on the club’s website.
The learning curve varies a lot depending on each individual’s build, physical awareness and discipline. “Dancers are amongst the fastest and best students,” said Jordi Falgueras, accounting for the physical self-awareness and control required for the sport.
Once one has completed the beginner’s course and learnt the technical, postural and safety basics, there’s a lot of practice ahead. Knowing the basics is just the beginning, then you need to embody the technique to actually master it. “No archer shoots exactly the same. As they progress, they make the technique their own.” Each body, Falgueras explained, with all its unique characteristics, creates personal strategies to optimise posture and strength.
Apart from making enough time for regular practice, taking part in tournaments is extremely helpful to improve the archer's performance. Such events provide a setting in which increased pressure and competitive motivation call for increased focus and assertiveness. For this reason, and also to foster a sense of community, the club organises its own tournaments, usually held on weekends. It also collaborates with other clubs, as well as with the Catalan and Spanish Archery Federations, in organising larger competitions.
The life of the archer is, however, in essence, lonely. The absorbing and introspective nature of the sport often unsettles family and friends who can get tired of being mere observers and decide to give it a try. After weeks of tagging along with mum to drop off his sister Laura for training, Dani Pardina, eight years old, decided he too wanted to learn. Such examples abound, which is why, if you go up to Montjuïc, you’ll see archers of both genders and from various generations who share a fascination for the discipline. It’s not hard to understand them. Each bow is itself—as Laura’s example shows—a potential object of desire: after the initial training each archer gets her own weapon, customised to her size, strength and technique. The bows can be surprisingly intricate and beautiful. This means that while you might be able to buy a beginner’s kit for around €100 this can be the fraction of the cost of a fancier weapon, the total price of which can easily reach over €1,000.
Watching the archers practise, moving as if choreographed and gazing at the target, it’s impossible not to think that a certain zen aspect is involved. Falgueras explains how in the moment of ‘release’—the precise instant when the arrow is shot from the bow—it is crucial that the mind is clear, fully immersed in the present. “The mind needs to be blank; the eyes seeing nothing but the target. Any distraction—a beautiful girl passing by, a thought going through your head—and you’ve already missed it.” Any minor disturbance will affect the archer’s performance and can mean a significant change in the arrow’s trajectory.
Sport or art, archery is an exercise in focus and self-discipline more than competition. One is fighting mostly for the inner sharpness and physical control needed to meet the individual challenge each arrow presents. Go up to Montjuïc one day and you might not be able to resist trying out the feel of having a bow in your own hands.
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Updated August 2016