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                                                                                  sportscarpros Off The Grid
                                                                                                                                                                                      Richard Dole


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A Different Kind of Race

On my fifth day in China, I realized I was experiencing a real-life

version of the movie The Truman Show.  I was one of the thousands of extras, each of us repeating our steps from the day before – busily hurrying across the same street each morning, either walking to a venue a couple of blocks away or trying to catch a bus to a remote locale.  Every one had the same expression on their face – smile and excitement this day early in the month of August, only to be replaced by looks of fatigue and weariness as the days wore on.

I was in Beijing covering the Summer Olympics for BPI (Back Page

Images), the London based photo agency, recently acquired by Haymarket, the parent company of LAT (London Art & Technology), the motor sports photo agency.  While LAT concentrates on motor sports for the worldwide magazine and corporate markets, the younger BPI works on tight daily deadlines servicing newspapers throughout the United Kingdom.

Photographing the Olympics is every sports photographer’s dream

assignment.  During my first trip to Beijing three years ago, I decided to set a goal of photographing these Summer Olympics.  I suspected that the Beijing games would be the biggest and best Olympics in my lifetime.  I was correct.

I arrived in Beijing on the evening of August 3rd.  I flew Delta for the

majority of the flights – 16 hours of flying team from Daytona to Atlanta to Tokyo, then a 6 hour layover in the Northwest lounge in Narita before 4 additional hours to Beijing.  Get the luggage, have my credentials activated at the airport, equipment list checked and verified by customs, and then take a bus to my media hotel. The next morning I would start a routine that I repeated for 23 consecutive days.

From every way imaginable, the Olympics are the pinnacle of any

event – sporting or otherwise.  The BOCOG (Beijing Organizing for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad) and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) put in place a level of logistical organization that is difficult to fathom even in hindsight.  A budget of 43 billion dollars (yes billion) took these Olympics to a level that no other country will ever exceed. A new international terminal at the airport, extended subway lines to the main Olympic venues, the Cube – home of the swimming and diving, and the Bird’s Nest – the National Athletic Stadium host of the opening an closing ceremonies, track and field, and the soccer finals – all dazzling in their design and scale.  Located next to one another, the Cube and Bird’s Nest were the gathering places for the citizens of Beijing posing for family photos in front of both structures every evening; capturing images of themselves and the symbols of modern day China with the same enthusiasm western tourists pose at The Great Wall.

Each day a familiar routine unfolded.  A security check took place at

every media hotel or in the media village – x-ray camera bags, walk through a scanner, get on the bus for twenty minute bus ride to the MPC (Main Press Center) or the IBC (International Broadcast Center), assemble gear, either walk or take a bus to a venue, quickly scout and decide on a shooting location, wait for history to unfold in front of you, shoot, shoot some more, edit or hustle to the next venue,  history unfolds again, shoot, edit, transmit, move to next venue,  more history, more shooting, more editing, more transmitting, head back to MPC, edit more, transmit more, answer e-mails, grab dinner, go to venue,  more history, more shooting, more editing, more transmitting, introduce yourself to the new familiar faces you have seen throughout the day, exchange stories, go back to MPC, drink tons of water, edit, transmit, put gear in locker,  take 2am bus back to hotel, take shower, answer email, sleep for 5 hours,  wake up and repeat same.   A photographer could cover 2 events a day very well.  Three events less so.  Four events meant something was going to suffer, either your shooting or your editing (I tried to choose editing).  Trying to explain this to the bosses 12 time zones away in London was my only true frustration I experienced in China.  Ever try talking to a brick wall?  Been there, done that.

Hard work?  You bet.  The first couple of days were the worst.  Heat

and humidity dominated the first week of the Olympics.  The evening of the opening ceremonies was the worst of it.  Every photographer was dripping wet within the first half hour of the 4 hour show.  By the end of the evening, every piece of clothing was soaked, including my Olympic  photo vest.  This presented an interesting situation.  The vest is part of the photographer’s credential and you are required to wear it any time you shoot.   I learned that first evening part of  “the code” Olympic photographers are expected to follow – you cannot wash your photo vest during the Olympics.  Yes, I am old school, and yes, I followed “the code.”  By the end of three weeks you understood why the photographers’ press area and the writer press area were on different floors of the MPC.

The MPC was the hub for writers and photographers.  About 3/4 of a

city block long, 1/2 city block wide, and three stories tall.  Every day began here and ended here.  The top floor was filled with a few IOC offices and bureaus of all of the major players.  USA Today, AP, SI, ESPN, and Getty Images were among the agencies with offices.  Large offices.  Getty had over 80 people in Beijing, 40 plus photogs, editors, technicians, assistants, and so forth.  They invested in a fiber optic line system, wiring every single venue so images could be transmitted back to an editor’s desk at the MPC at the rate of 1 image per second.  Competition of getting an image on line between agencies was just a fierce as anything in the sports worlds.  For the men’s100m finals, Getty had 14 photographers, plus remote cameras covering Usain Bolt’s world record sprint.  They had images online less than 4 minutes after the race.  Staggering.

The main floor of the MPC was home to the 4,000 plus writers, in a

pressroom double the size of Le Mans’.  Carrying laptops and pushing keyboards all day takes its toll, so at the far end of their pressroom was a workout room, a hair salon, and a message area.  The balance of the main floor consisted of a bank, commissary, cell phone rental store, a small café, and post office.

The bottom floor was the photographer’s floor.  A large open room

with over 500 desks, Nikon and Canon service and loan areas, Kodak printing area (free prints and custom made books – who had time for this?!), Sandisk and Lexur support, plus 4 Apple Aperture experts and a dozen or so 30 inch Apple monitors and stations with Photoshop, Photo Mechanic and Aperture software.  There were no assigned seats in the photo area, but you never went without a workspace.  A large locker room was equipped with lockers large enough for two large thinktank bags, plus a laptop bag.  Kodak covered the cost of internet fees in the MPC, and the cost of using wireless at the other venues was $600.00 for the 3 weeks of the games.

Every venue had it’s own press center and photo work room.

Lockers, work stations, a venue photo manager who controlled accessm and his staff of volunteers.  There was a pecking order for access among photo agencies.  Getty,ruled the roost, followed by AP, Reuters, AFP, SI and so forth.  The IOC made sure the agencies which would provide the widest distribution got the best access or the best spots.  This was completely understandable and, with just a couple of minor exceptions, never caused a problem.

From a photographer’s perspective a decision had to be made on

when to follow the pack and essentially get the same shot as 300 other shooters or gamble and try and get something unique.  It was a difficult call, especially at a venue like track and field, where shooters collected just beyond the finish line for the “jub”(jubilation) reaction shot.  Perhaps my best shot of the Games was when I gambled to the men’s 200m finals and climbed to the very top of the stadium and shot straight down the front straight as Usain Bolt ran through the Olympic rings on his way to victory. Only myself and Leo Mason, the outstanding British photographer), chose this location and we both agreed afterward that we made the correct call.

The greatest part of the Olympics was the wide variety sports and

world class athletes and the ability to cover them with relative ease.  I could photograph Michael Phelps in the morning, walk across the street and shoot gymnastic competition, walk across the next street and cover fencing, then walk 6 minutes to the Bird’s Nest and shoot track and field.

Some sports – fencing, field hockey, whitewater canoeing, and

gymnastics were great to shoot, others like team handball and air rifle, less so.

Best of all the Olympics provided an opportunity to work shoulder to

shoulder with the best sports photographers in the world.  Every day images were produced that left each of us in awe, humbled, inspired, and motivated. I ran into old friends that I had not seen in years like SI’s Al Tielemans, and Pascal Rondeau from L’Equipe; and made new friends like Kari Kuukka from Finland (http://www.karikuukka.com)  and finally met David Burnett from Contact Press Images.  David was a huge influence during the early days of my career.  (David and his wife have a wonderful blog that covers everything under the sun…check it out at: http://werejustsayin.blogspot.com).

Just like The Truman Show, every aspect of this grand stage was

well planned and executed.  The opening ceremonies were simply stunning. 2008 drummers pounding in unison, the pageantry of the Chinese military honor guard goose stepping with the Olympic flag, and the lighting of the Olympic flame are memories of a lifetime.  Security and transportation systems that were efficient, flawless and ran on time (in 3 weeks I experienced one bus was 10 minutes late), 100,000 Chinese volunteers that were well trained not only in their English but more importantly, in their responsibilities, attention to the smallest details, and for journalists – knowing that the organizers want you to produce the highest level of work possible and have gone to extremes to make sure working conditions and the absolute best.

The star of this show was also the director of this show.  The Beijing

Summer Olympics were a coming out part for China.  This was their opportunity to showcase to the world their ability to undertake the most difficult of tasks.   They exceeded all expectations.  In doing so, the outside world now has a better understand of the capabilities of this once closed country and the opportunities that lay within.  For China, its people and its government, the Olympics have opened the door to the outside world a bit wider, providing not a glimpse, but a clearer view of a world of possibilities. The motto of the Beijing Summer Olympics – “One World One Dream” should now be altered for the people of China to – “One World My Dream.”  They have experienced the world outside of the protective bubble and there will be no looking back.

If you are interested in seeing my selects from the Beijing Summer

Olympics, please go to this link: http://gallery.me.com/richarddole#100208.


September, 2008