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!