Four reigning world champions, the first ever from India in their sport, start their Asian Games campaign on Sunday. One of those champions holds a world record too. But only the most serious sports fans would have heard of Jyothi Surekha Vennam, Aditi Swami, Parneet Kaur and Ojas Deotale or know of compound archery, despite all those achievements coming last month. And the main reason for this is simple: Compound archery, unlike its sister sport recurve, is not an event at the Olympic Games, so it doesn't get the eyeballs or, as importantly, the funding.
The other reason for low awareness has of course been India's lack of success but the recent achievements should test this theory during the Asian Games. And the one archer poised to make this happen is the uber-consistent and prolific Jyothi Surekha Vennam. She's raised the sport's profile almost single-handedly with her record-making, gold-winning performances at both the World Championships and World Cup.
"I think 2023 is my time to achieve everything I haven't before," Jyothi (27) from Vijaywada, told ESPN recently. "I am lucky enough and I hope this continues till the end of the year."
In August, the Indian women's compound team of Jyothi, Aditi and Parneet won India's first ever gold medal at the World Archery Championships. Then Aditi (17) went on to become India's first senior world champion, winning gold - and beating Jyothi in an all-Indian semi-final. (The previous month, she'd become the U-18 world champion with a record score.) The third gold came via Ojas Deotale (21), India's first male world champion in archery.
Their youth is another big plus, as Jyothi affirms. "They are young, this is the first year they have been part of the senior category and they did extremely well."
All this puts compound archery at a tipping point and where it goes from here depends to a large extent on funding - all the more important because it is a far more expensive sport, thanks to the mechanical bow (as compared to the more traditional recurve bow). A top-level set-up bow can cost between ₹3.5-4.5 lakh. A set of one dozen arrows costs around ₹40,000 and getting them ready for shooting would take around ₹65,000-70,000. All equipment has to be imported from the US so it also depends on the dollar rate and exchange rate. "We need to use new arrows maybe every two tournaments because we practice a lot, maybe hit one arrow with another and they get damaged easily," she explains. "We need to invest a lot to buy new equipment, to keep ourselves updated. Even the equipment matters for us because if you don't use the best or the newest version it may lead to a difference of one or two point. That is where we lack in support."
But there are other factors, like administrative decisions, that show up the discrimination between compound and recurve. In 2021, for example, India's compound archery team were not allowed to fly to the World Cup Stage 1 after what would later turn out to be a false positive COVID-19 test by the team coach, partly because the priority was the recurve team in an Olympic year.
Jyothi puts it plainly: "We don't receive any support only because compound archery is not included in the Olympics. Olympic athletes receive a lot of support, including from private organisations, but we don't." She is currently supported by the Dream Sports Foundation and says is grateful for it but not many of her peers have this back-up.
Jyothi hopes their recent performance can bring about some change.
"I can't question them but I can only request them to extend support for non-Olympic athletes too," she says, her generally composed tone becoming impassioned. "What's our fault if our event is not in the Olympics? I know it's a big event, but we are also competing in other events, we are also winning medals at World Championship and Asian Games and Asian Championship."
The successes have raised the level of competition in the sport, says Jyothi. "The competition has become very tough now, we have to go through a rigorous selection process. There are many young archers coming up in compound who are shooting extremely well, who are giving a tough fight and you have to be so good if you want to be part of the Indian team."
Indeed, Jyothi missed parts of the season and would probably have not made the Asian Games had it not been postponed last year after a bad day at the selection trials before.
But despite this rise in players and profile, the Asian Games will be an almost new platform for Jyothi and her team-mates, competing as Team India with athletes from different sports. Archery has featured only twice at the Commonwealth Games and the last Asiad had only team events in compound archery. India have won 10 compound medals at the Asiad, but only one gold: the men's compound team in 2014.
Yet this group of archers have the momentum, they have the cred and they have a bigger target than the one on the range: They have to strike a blow for their sport, and for themselves.