When you cover a job for a month, you very quickly lose track of what happened where and when so sitting down to write anything from the Winter Games in Whistler is going to be hard. Long days and nights of covering training sessions on the icy slopes soon merge into one and only certain moments tend to stand out in the day. As such, this blog is more of a collection of events and thoughts on my first Olympics.

After months of e-mails and planning, the day arrived for the UK photography team of two to head out to Canada. As fellow London AFP staffer Adrian Dennis and I were waiting for our plane at Heathrow, a flurry of activity attracted my attention and Bryan Adams appeared. Oddly enough, he wasn’t directed to cattle class at the back of the plane and that was the last we saw of him until the opening ceremony. Also on the plane, Robert Carlyle sat unnoticed in Business Class. As Adrian pointed out, when combined with the various Olympic teams on-board, if the plane had gone down, all of the media onboard wouldn’t have even made the foot notes.

Arriving in Vancouver, we made our way to the main media centre on the waterfront for our briefing. Following a long day of travel with four cases full to capacity with clothing and equipment, we found ourselves in the AFP hub. With events such as this, the main agencies and some publications set up a whole virtual bureau with AFP being no exception. Walking into our area of the complex saw me being passed through the system with one person after another assigned to issue me with various bits of equipment, upgrade our software or brief us on our assignment. Very soon, the adrenaline of finally arriving began to wear off and by the time I got to the meeting with the photo chief, it was proving difficult to take in the talk of remote editing, wireless transmission packs and field rules & etiquette. Heading to the buses, I was rewarded with the news that the 90 minute journey to Whistler could be up to 3 hours. Huzzah.

After being drafted in to cover the opening ceremony in Vancouver, I headed back down to the city on the media coach and on arrival was greeted with mass activity in the AFP media room. AFP colleague Peter Parks had just been the only photographer to witness the horrific crash of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. With the networks showing TV footage of the crash on loop behind us, the editors worked on the pictures and searched for more news on his condition. By the time that his death was announced a few minutes later, everyone knew that the most important event of the whole Games had just happened before the opening ceremony had even taken place.

Peter had been shooting on the final corner purely due to the strips of light that were crossing the track due to the low morning sun. Our cameras take nine frames a second. The whole accident is over within six frames. Out of this tragedy, the only positive things to consider are that he died doing what he loved doing and his death was so fast, he would barely have even realised that it was happening. Over the following days, the track would be scrutinised with extra safety walls put in place, padding wrapped around the steel pillars and competitors starting from lower positions on the track to slow them down. The next morning, as I returned to the press room after a training session, I glanced down to the area where the crash had taken place and saw that Levan Gureshidze was standing in the spot where his team-mate had died. As the last of the lugers completed their runs on the other side of the hastily-erected wall, he simply stood, looking at the pillar that had killed his friend.

After a couple of days of being the centre of attention and just as things were beginning to get back on track, Pete decided to reassign himself to editing duties by slipping on black ice and breaking his ankle, the second break he’s suffered in as many visits to Whistler. With crutches now firmly welded to his side, the photo director in Vancouver decided to keep “TeamSledge” together as best as possible by allowing him to stay in Whistler to become our MacBitch.. sorry, “Editor”. As it happens, it was actually a great result as now we knew that we had someone dedicated to editing our images who knew the course, knew how we were approaching our images and was on the same wavelength for new crops and ideas.

With so many spectators on the track attempting to capture the competitors as they hurtled past at astonishing speeds, it became a common event to be approached for information on how best to capture the action. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that you can say when the person asking you is trying to get the shot on a four-year old digital pocket camera with a three-second lag on the shutter. As I was told before setting out to Whistler, after you’ve been shooting it for a while, you become attuned to the sounds rather than the actual arrival of the athlete and my burst rate soon dropped from 10+ frames to capture each pass down to a much more efficient (and professionally satisfying) two.

Being a keen follower of camera technology, I often read the gossip and rumors at NikonRumors and the build-up to the Winter Games had caused much activity on the site with requests posted on the site for all camera fans to be on the lookout for new equipment including prototype Nikon D4 bodies. Being the nerd that I am, I’d already decided that I’d be looking out for one anyway but hadn’t then realised that the attention would be turned on me. I normally tape my camera up anyway but had taped over all of the logos and model numbers on both my D3 and D3s. Within a couple of days, a spectator sidled over to me, looking at my camera. “So what model is that camera?” “This one? Why do you ask?” “Is it a D4?” “I’m sorry, bud. I really can’t talk about it..” Despite my best efforts, I never made it to rumour site glory.. :(

Canadians truly are a unique people. After living in London for nearly seven years, I’ve become quite accustomed to the grunts, frowns and general unpleasantness that makes up daily life. That made coming to Canada and experiencing the outright threateningly pleasant nature of everyone a severe shock. Everyone is so nice that it feels like they’re actually joking at first. If you sit down in a coffee shop, the person next to you just starts talking to you as though you’ve just met an old friend. It’s such a pleasure but it has to be pointed out that after weeks of hard work and little rest, when you sit for your quiet morning coffee before rushing off to another long day, you begin to yearn for the solitude that London life can bring. The annoying thing is that I know that when I am settled back in England again, I’ll be pining for some decency and manners from the general public. Things get a bit odd when you meet resistance during work. In London, there’s something satisfying about having a bit of a grumble with jobsworth-style security guards and PRs but there it made you feel as though you were punching a kitten if you snapped in any way.

Among the finest questions that I was asked by a passing spectator during the Games was, “Where do the bobsleighs start from? The top or the bottom?” Admittedly, if they had started from the bottom, there would have been less crashes but I’m guessing viewing figures may have thinned out after a few days. On the subject of crashes, I was reminded again how little the general public know about how the industry works after I caught the moment that a bobsleigh flipped over and passed over the Olympic ring logo. Seeing the shot on the back of my camera, a spectator behind let out a gasp and patted me on the back with congratulations before asking me how many thousand dollars I’ll be getting for the shot. Oh my, life would be good if it worked like that..

Thanks to colleague John D McHugh, before I left sunny London, I’d invested in a full set of Icebreaker Merino thermal clothing and I have to say that this stuff is a woolly miracle. Now, I know this is really not a good thing to admit but one of the things that crossed my mind before heading out there was that I would very probably not have the time to do much laundry so it would be great to find clothing that looked after itself. Cue the merino gear. Seriously, I’m loathe to admit how long I wore that stuff for before it needed washing. It’s incredible! It keeps you warm, has no odour to it whatsoever and stays dry. Bravo, you intelligent New Zealand-based sheeps!

One of the unique aspects of working on major sporting events such as the Olympics is the use of remote-editing systems. To those photographers out there who plan on working in the industry some day, this kind of technology comes as a bit of a shock after years of doing your own thing. To cut a very long and complicated story down to size, at every key location at every venue, AFP came on-site before we arrived and laid ethernet cables from a main hub through to our photo positions. Once we arrived and started shooting an important race or stage, we would connect our cameras to these cables via a Nikon WT-4 transmitter. This means that as I work, whenever I shoot a frame that I like, I press two buttons on the back of the camera to mark the image and it is instantly transmitted to the editor a few miles away in the Whistler Media Centre where he can edit, caption and file the image straight away. As you can imagine, this has both pros and cons.

On the plus side, the images are immediately out of your hands, leaving you free to concentrate on shooting the event. Also, the editor will be in charge of captioning the pictures so aside from recording an audio-tag on any important images using the microphone on your camera, the hassle is taken totally out of your hands. This leads to the negative side. Unless you know your editor is capable of “seeing” the images within your pictures and trust he/she is capable of working on your images as you would yourself, it’s a hell of a worrying feeling to send your hard-won pictures off into the digital ether and just hope that they’ll go onto the news wire as you would like them to be seen.

With both Nikon and Canon in full attendance with workshops available throughout the Games to repair and service equipment for free, it was also a perfect opportunity to try out their new gear. For me, the only real thing of interest was the new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8G ED VR II lens. Having already fired a few frames on this lens courtesy of Ian Gavan, I was absolutely over-joyed to get the chance to use one for the duration of my stay. When AFP moved to Nikon, the 70-200mm was the only lens that really let the side down with a generally slow feel to it plus less-than staggering results. The new incarnation is a totally different animal. With pin-sharp follow focus, even when shooting lugers flying towards you from blind corners at 90mph+, the hit rate was near-perfect. Time after time, the lens just nailed the images even during the late night sessions when the low light was forcing me to push the D3s up to 4000ISO. A superb lens in every way. It’s a cliche I know but the only thing that I didn’t like about the lens was that it wasn’t mine to keep.

After finding that I’d often have to shoot at speeds of up to 4000th of a second to truly freeze the action, I decided to go the other way and with an impromptu panning masterclass from Getty photographer Richard Heathcote, I was soon capturing the action with a greater sense of movement thanks to shutter speeds as low as a tenth of a second. With these kind of low shutter speeds, it soon becomes clear which of the athletes are any good. To complete the run in the fastest time, the best of the best will take a direct line through each corner with no wasted swerves to take away precious momentum. These are the ones that make the best pans as you can predict their course through a known turn. When it’s right, the only static item in the image should be the only thing that’s actually moving. However, break out some of the lower-ranked teams and the pan becomes an experimental image of painted light and waves, all intentional of course.. 😉

On the final day, I had a day off but knew that wouldn’t last for very long as I had to go into the media centre to grab a Photoshop upgrade and as predicted, I was assigned to cover the fan reaction to the evening’s hockey match between Canada and the US. With many people seeing the Olympics as just an opportunity for these two countries to get to play a grudge match, it was fitting that it came as the final event of the Games. With thousands of people filling the streets of Vancouver, a space in the many bars and restaurants was impossible to find. Large outdoor screens were erected on Robson Street in the Downtown area with crowds gathering outside shops to watch the game on monitors in the windows.

As you may have guessed from the pictures, Canada ended up beating their arch-rivals after taking the game to sudden-death. Vancouver erupted. The great side to the friendly and polite nature that I wrote about above is that, on winning, the celebrations were simply a massive burst of cheering and happiness. Being British, I was prompted to high-five about 3 or 4 people and failed on every single one before giving up entirely and just shooting. I can’t help but think that if England were to win the World Cup, their would be a threatening aggression to a lot of the celebrations that weren’t a factor over there.

After 22 days and with 11873 new frames to add to my archive, the assignment was over. With one last get-together for those of us who’d been around Vancouver for the final night, we said our goodbyes and headed off in our different directions to all corners of the world. It was a hell of a job with moments of fatigue, frustration, mental brick walls and photographic breakthroughs but I got to do what I love doing with a great team of people. Bring on the next one!

30 Responses to “Slip sliding away…”

  1. My liege, this is an amazing in-depth read. May I just say that I want your camera know-how brain as soon as. Love all the shots. Would you now consider yourself a canuck? :-)

    Posted by pixgremlin
  2. Leon you’re an absolute star. Love the pictures, especially some of the bobsleigh ones. Getting to see people through their visors is ace. The John Montgomery photo (he of the beaver helmet, fnnnarrr) is fantastic.

    Glad you had an ace time. I rented an apartment off Robson Street a couple of years ago during a personal crisis, and the Pacific West Coast way of life is the perfect tonic. Love the kitten punching reference. So true. Oh Canada.

    Posted by Dave Curtis
  3. A great read and fantastic photos. Inspirational as always.

    Posted by Neil Smith
  4. The shot of Levan Gureshidze just broke my heart:(

    your shots are mind blowing amazing!! the shot of the two people with the camera phone WOW.

    please post more as your work makes me re assess every picture i take.


    Posted by lee allen
  5. Wow, glued to that the whole way. Images are just breath-taking. I harbour a quiet dream to be shooting in London come 2012, you just made that dream a lot louder. Inspired and jealous, impressed and in awe. Can you re-run the Heathcote masterclass back in blighty for us mortals. Thank you and congratulations on a first rate job.


    Posted by Jools
  6. Excellent Leon, inspiring and a great read…. a reminder also of what a slog the World Cup promises to be !

    Keep it up :)

    Posted by Marc
  7. Great read, was hoping that you’d do one of these recaps. The pic of Levan Gureshidze is chillingly good, let alone the sports stuff.

    Posted by Magnus
  8. Amazing shots and marvelous read, thanks for sharing!

    Posted by gill
  9. Wowzers me trousers, as we say in our house – what a cracking collection. Work to be truly proud of and as others have said, the commentary is a great read.

    Posted by Mark
  10. Duuude! I still am fighting the jealous angst that you were in my backyard (well, it’s a 5 hr internal flight from my backyard, but meh!) and I was in Blighty. Glad you enjoyed some Canadian hospitality and soaked up the awesomeness of the land I call home:) Heh@ our Canadian friendliness.. on moving to London I was told to not be “myself” or people would think I was crazy…

    How AWESOME was the hockey game?? Still high off the win and still getting misty-eyed reviewing the highlights.

    Fantabulous shots, but then again, wouldn’t expect anything less. Still want to be you when I grow up!

    Posted by Michelle
  11. Great read, superb photos.

    Much more interesting than the games itself (for me anyway).

    Posted by Neil
  12. You did a great job, those panning shots can’t be easy! The shot of the woman with the camera phone and the luger in the background is fantastic.

    Did you see this Sports Illustrated guy, Russ Beinder? Apparently he had a prototype 3d system with two dslrs glued together and synced. Beinder has published a book of 3d photography in the past. Not a D4 but perhaps more sci-fi.

    Posted by Miles
  13. Oh hun, what a fabulous read that was. I’m so glad you got to keep hold of your gorgeous shots. xxx

    Posted by kirsten
  14. Tremendous work! This is just world-class sports shooting.

    Posted by Guy Collier
  15. @PG: Pah, I’m no sports photographer in ANY way so can confidently say that any decent shot is a product of the environment! When you’re put into any immersive situation like that, you get such a learning curve thrown at you, there’s only one way to go!

    @Dave Curtis: Thanks for your very kind words. It’s an honour to do something I enjoy and get praise for the production on top!

    @Neil Smith: Cheers!

    @Lee Allen: There are more pics on my flickr page. Head to http://www.flickr.com/photos/leonneal/ for a few alternative shots.

    @Jools: 2012 is going to be a totally new experience for me too and I’m guessing I may well be working on it. I’m thinking that AFP will be able to cover the travel costs.. :) As for the masterclass, you can follow the man hmself either through the link above or on his twitter account “rheathcote”

    @Marc: I had the choice of Winter Olympics or World Cup and, having heard a few stories of long lenses going walkabout while working in Joburg, opted for the safety of snow!

    @Magnus Thanks for your comments.

    @Gill: Cheers, Strambo! :)

    @Mark: Glad it makes sense. The jet-lag was making the screen all wobbly for some of it and I didn’t have my usual glamourous proof-reader to hand. :)

    @Michelle: I was thinking of you when I wrote about the Canadian niceness! It all suddenly makes sense.. 😉

    @Neil: Happy to help!

    @Miles: The cameraphone shot was quite fun actually as I saw him trying to get the shot on the person before so dropped this frame for them and wandered over to show them. They were all very excited so I mailed it to them. The following day, I got an email thanking me but the day after that, I got one from their Grandma, saying how proud the whole family were! Canadians, eh? :)

    @Kirsten: Speaking of glamourous proof-readers.. Cheers, babe! x

    @Guy Collier: Thanks, Guy. Very kind of you and welcome to the blog! As for being called a sports-shooter, there are many guys out there who would find me being described in that way as MOST amusing! I’m the man that wonders why the golfers keep changing sticks as they’re playing.. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  16. Ha – well look, these are as good as anything I see from the sports boys. I call it as I see it 😀

    Posted by Guy Collier
  17. Cheers, Guy. I’m certainly not going to turn down your kind words!

    Posted by tabascokid
  18. I’d been worried about the lack of sledging pix and then, right on cue you made my day! Excellent work as ever Dude.


    Posted by Ian Gav
  19. haha I was tempted to just put one picture on the blog of a kid sledging down Muswell Hill on a For Sale sign, just for you.. Cheers for the uber-kind comments, old bean!

    Posted by tabascokid
  20. Fantastic read, along with a stunning set of shots. Such an inspiration and something I dream of doing one day!
    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Nick
  21. yo,
    nice job mate.
    i remember going through this 4000th thought bubble when covering F1, and also deciding to join the panners :o)
    rock on tommy!

    Posted by walnuts
  22. Amazing as ever- the photos are incredible and you always tell the story so well. Hope you have arrived in SA safely and K & M are feeling better. Look forward to next blog installment! xx

    Posted by Amy Baxendale
  23. I’ve been looking forward to this write up since I saw your name popping up in the press coverage. Great read, great photos, cheers!

    Posted by Isaac
  24. @Nick: Too kind. Cheers bud.

    @Pauly Walnuts: I think the pan could well be the missing evolutionary step between a decent frame and a zoom burst.. :)

    @Amy Baxendale: Hey Pwesto! Cheers, m’dears! :) Just landed back after a thoroughly decent time with the in-laws and 36 degree heat. All doing well, thanks!

    @Isaac: Cheers for your support and readership. It’s much appreciated!

    Posted by tabascokid
  25. Amazing photos as always Leon! A great read too, lovely stuff.

    Posted by James Arnold
  26. Wonderfull pics Leon

    Posted by andrew schofield
  27. Inspirational …!

    Posted by Steve Jackson
  28. Having just read your tweet that you are off to the ’14 Winter Olympics and as a result read the entire, captivating blog entry for 2010, I look forward to your ’14 blog post .. as & when you get the time .. Rob

    Posted by Rob Dray
  29. Cheers! I’m not saying I’ll be rushing it out but there’ll certainly be at least one and maybe something a bit special too if all goes well!

    Posted by tabascokid

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