Ladies First—A Reaction

This is not a review of the new Netflix short documentary as I do not want to watch this enough times to be able to review it correctly; it is rather my first impressions of this archery-based documentary. Ladies First is the story of a young Indian girl’s foray into archery as a way out of her life in her Indian village, a village immersed in poverty, misogyny, and patriarchy, a village where women are beaten out of course by husbands or male relatives and there is no crime involved.

We cannot feel superior in this regard as it is not that long ago that we were much the same. I remember that the legal question of whether a parent’s children were their possessions or not was addressed. I remember when wives couldn’t get a credit card or even credit in their own name if they were married (it had to be as Mrs. So-and-So).

This brave young Indian female had to talk her way into an instructional program and then excelled so quickly that she became a world champion as a youth and then within a few short years, she was ranked the #1 female Olympic Recurve archer in the world. She then proceeded to contest others at the Olympics, both in London and in Rio de Janeiro, and lost twice. Each time, she received small mountains of negativism in her country. Each time her quest was pumped up to a ruinous level of expectation by the press, the general public, and even her parents who prayed for divine assistance, prayed for her to win (as if there were not more worthy things to pray for).

Being young and relatively inexperienced, she took this attention/criticism personally, which is perfectly understandable. It was pointed out that the Indian team had no mental coach and really no significant experience in Olympic archery. (India is an emerging power in Olympic Recurve archery.)

The painful thing to me is that there was no one to explain to her or to the public at large that winning an Olympic medal is a crap shoot, governed by random chance as much as by skill. Since I know that last comment will set some of you off, I will explain.

Back in the day, Olympic archers shot a Double FITA Round, which was two 144-arrow FITA International Rounds, the “FITA Round” of most everyone’s acquaintance. This was 72 arrows a day for four days and the highest total score won. Such a sifting process allowed for the best archers to win, but was about as thrilling to watch as a neighbor cutting his lawn. For the Olympic Games, more and more of a televised event, it was a sport that would soon be dropped. As Wikipedia puts it “The Olympic Round was introduced to target archery so that it could become more watchable as a competitive sport, the main focus of this being for the Olympics when shown on television. The round was developed by the World Archery Federation (WA; formerly FITA).”

So, the double FITA was transformed into the Grand FITA and finally through several iterations to what we have now. The latest “innovation” is the inclusion of “set scoring.” When 288 arrows were shot, a bad arrow, even a total miss, could be compensated for by excellent shooting following it. In the single elimination, head-to-head shoot offs for Olympic medals, first introduced in 1988, a poor arrow could spell doom, so this was solved by basically resetting the scores to zero after every six arrows. If you won the contest of the first six arrows, you received two set points (if there is a tie, it is one each). The first to accumulate six set points wins. If there is a tie at that point, a lone arrow, closest to the center, shoot off is done. Since a number of these one-arrow shoot offs were decided by less than a millimeter of distance to the center (from 70 meters!) a rule was put into place that the distance difference had to be more than one millimeter.

This “set system” allows for an archer whose total score is actually lower to win. This has already happened. A bad arrow may lose a set, but its effect stops at the beginning of the next set. In broader terms, the new rules make it harder for the better archer to win and easier for a weaker archer to upset a stronger one. If one then assembles the most talented archers and compares their scores, you will find that there is very little difference between them, so little that those differences are less than the variations in a single archer’s score, therefore whether Archer A or Archer B wins any particular match depends a lot on chance. If Archer A is the “better archer,” that is ranked higher, has a higher end average, whatever, but has a less than average performance for a match, she easily could be defeated by a slightly lesser archer having an above average match. Plus the ranking of the archers to determine who shoots against whom is arbitrary (based upon a 72-arrow, 70 m “Ranking Round”). The dominance of the Korean women has been on display no more obviously that they frequently are ranked #1, #2, and #3 after the Ranking Round, which means if they win out, one Korean woman will face another only in the medal rounds, thus maximizing their chance of medals.

This is the reality of the situation: for TV reasons, there are more “upsets,” less predictability, and more excitement, but there is a much less chance that the best archer will win. But the thinking of the Indian public and media was “She is the No. 1 archer, she should win.” This is quite simplistic thinking. I wonder what the actual success rate is for #1 archers entering the Olympic Games. I don’t have the energy to do such a study, but if you do, I will publish it in Archery Focus. I suspect that the percentage of times the #1 archer prior to the Olympics even medals is closer to 50% than it is to 100% and may be below 50%.

So, all of the crushing pressure and expectations were placed upon a youth with no ability to create reasonable expectations for herself, plus she had no experienced coach, mental or otherwise, to help her create such expectations. Did this affect the outcome? I do not know. I guess an analysis could be done of both of her performances to see if the rounds she shot were above or below her average. If she shot above her average, then a case for “losing” is bankrupt, she just got beat by an archer having an even “hotter” performance that round. If she shot below her average, possibly the pressure was a determining factor.

In any case, please do watch this documentary (Ladies First on Netflix) and if you have a different perspective please let me know. I believe it was billed as an uplifting sports story but while I found her story compelling, I was also dismayed at the failure of the public and the media to understand and the failure of anyone in WA to help them understand.


Filed under For All Coaches

5 responses to “Ladies First—A Reaction

  1. Hi

    Just had to reach out to you and let you know that I watched this biopic the first day it came out, and was mesmerized. I saw this post, watched it again, and then came back and read this. Thank you for writing this – I’m a senior recurve women’s archer who started shooting in 2014 (I know Al Wills and you published one of my articles, if you remember me). The biography and your essay both taught me and reminded me of so much, as well as inspired me to keep going despite various challenges and boundaries (which are beyond minimal in compare, as I have been so reminded by her story, but are still there and ‘overcome-able’ if that weird word makes sense ).

    I’m off to practice to do our mailmatch in an hour – I will be carrying this with me 🙂

    Lisa Victoria Bowmen Senior (age 47!) Women’s Recurve Archer 🙂


    • Hi, Lisa! Glad to hear you are still at it. My reaction was partly fueled by my experience as a teacher. I thought my students should be made to understand the system they were in and not just try to train them like circus animals. In the documentary I saw a woman pouring out her heart and soul and not receiving understanding and support and can’t but laud her efforts to help the next generation to get the support she lacked. You can talk to Al to confirm any of the things I wrote about. (He might not say them the same way I did, but he wouldn’t be far from it.)

      And one of the joys of our sport is that you can compete at a high level even when not a youngling. Archers over 50 are still competing strongly! So, the Indian lass still has time to reach her goals if she still has the stomach to pursue them (I doubt I would).


  2. Jeff Sadler

    Where can I find the individual scores and variances? Finding the actual chance that the #1 archer would win would be an excellent project for some of the math or science students here at our high school.


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