Olympics Postmortem

The Olympics have come and gone in a flash. I was in Beijing for almost a month, and it really seems like a matter of a few days. Well, time flies when you’re having fun and getting very little sleep. It was an incredible experience in many ways. First of all, my team at epa was superb. Working with good people makes the hard days bearable and the good days really shine, and we had a lot of shining days in Beijing. A big shout out to the Beijing boys for helping us all on the ground, as well our ultra-supportive editors – especially the ones who, understandably, would’ve rather been outside shooting. And of course all the shooters, who pushed me to do better, and were there to share a beer and some stories at the end of the day.

As part of a team (we had about 25 shooters, plus editors and technicians), i was assigned to the Water Cube for most of the games, so I shot mainly swimming, diving and synchronized swimming, with a football game and some waterpolo thrown in the mix. You can see much of what I filed HERE (just do a search for my name and “Beijing”). Most days I was up at 6, had time for breakfast and headed over to the Cube to grab the spot I wanted – there were only about 5 seats that had an unobstructed view for good jubo shots from my position, so when Phelps was racing I needed to get to the pool about 3hrs in advance. Of course, at times it was monotonous and repetitive, but man, can I ever shoot swimming and diving now. And I was witness to the biggest story of the games, covering every race Michael Phelps swam.

So, from a photographer’s perspective, were these Olympics a big success? This was my first one, so its not possible for me to compare Beijing to, say, Athens or Sydney. But most shooters I spoke with said this was by far the best organized event. It was also a very sterile and somewhat soulless event, and it certainly seemed a bit robotic. Everything ran smoothly, but without any flavour. Venues that were supposed to be sold out were often half-full, and although the multitudes of Chinese fans (often volunteers instructed to fill empty venue seats) cheered loudly for Chinese athletes, there was surprisingly little atmosphere when, say, Michael Phelps hit the pool. . . . The Olympic Green was also devoid of any real atmosphere, with thousands of people walking around without much to do other than admire the venue exteriors.

I was very disappointed with China’s refusal to allow any protests or allow unfettered press freedoms, two conditions they had agreed to in order to host the games. Unexpected? Of course not. But disappointing, and for me this really tarnished the event. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people cared or really took notice.

The following pictures are mostly snaps taken while traveling between venues, waiting for an event to begin, or other kinds of rejects and outtakes that didn’t make it into the epa service. But they open a little window into the weird world of the cloistered Olympic bubble. . . .

That’s me editing pictures in Tiananmen Square during the opening ceremonies. Credit: Nir Elias

In focus / out of focus…. Tiananmen Square opening ceremonies.

This is Ginger. After the opening ceremonies in Tiananmen Square, the subway and buses stopped running, and no taxis were available anywhere. A group of us wandered around the area with increasing desperation/exasperation looking for a cab, but no luck. Around 2am, just as I was giving up hope of sleeping anywhere other than the pavement, a red sports car pulls up, the window rolls down, and a young Chinese man leans over and asks if I needed some help. I said we needed a cab, and he graciously offered to drive us back to the main press centre himself. Four sweaty, suspicously smelling photographers piled into his car and we drove off towards the MPC. If he hadn’t shown up, I don’t know what we would have done.  Ginger, if you’re reading this, you are an absolute legend!!!

Photographers in the pen shooting swimming. Look at all the black lenses…. Canon, are you taking notes? Nikon’s D3 is by far the best sports camera on the market at the moment, with images consistently sharp, beautiful files at high ISOs and functions that Canon doesn’t have like multiple exposure. I’m a Canon shooter, and I don’t plan on changing, but I sincerely hope they get their act together real soon, as they’ve lost a lot of professionals to Nikon this year. Anywway, second right on the bottom of this image is my colleague Patrick Kraemer. His underwater shots of Michael Phelps winning the 100m butterfly by the slimmest of margins are amazing!

And let’s not forget that the Olympics are first and foremost a TV event. It’s increasingly difficult to get a good jubo (jubilation) shot as TV crews move in front of rows of photographers for closeups like this.

When you’re shooting 20 swimming heats in an hour, how do you keep a track of who’s-who for your captions? One way is to tag an audio clip to your image file, another way is to simply take an image of the scoreboard before each heat so you can be sure you’re identifying the right athletes later.

During an event its a good idea to take jubo and dejection images of either side, including fans, as these kinds of images get a lot of play in newspapers. Of course, even a really good jubo pic won’t see the light of day if that team loses. This image was taken early on in the men’s gold medal waterpolo match between top-seeded Hungary and underdogs USA. The US lost, so I didn’t feel the need to file it, even though i like the slow exposure with the red-wigged girl frozen in the movement. c’est la vie.

Afternoon sunshine pierces the darkness of the MPC (Main Press Center).

People watch The Today Show shooting live on the Olympic Green. I think I made it on TV as a tried to grab a few frames of Al Roker.

Taking a nap on the Olympic Green. Or maybe just bored.

The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube weren’t the only state-of-the-art facilities.

A journalist reporting LIVE! from the bus depot.

My dream is to not have to see that slogan again.

The Chinese military parked an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) outside the MPC one day. Perhaps deciding it looked a bit disconcerting, they cordoned it off with red tape, making it look like it was on display at a chic car dealership or part of an art installation.

A TV personality prepares for a live broadcast in front of the Bird’s Nest.

Always friendly smiles on the faces of security at the end of the day – this is the re-entry point to the Media Village. It must be said that the volunteers, staff and security at the games all wore smiles 24/7 and were incredibly helpful.

And of course I managed to get out to the Great Wall, on my last day (pictured here is Patrick K).

Self portrait, riding the Beijing underground.


~ by Julian Abram Wainwright on August 29, 2008.

4 Responses to “Olympics Postmortem”

  1. um….the swim shots are where?

  2. Wow you’re an honest guy. I would have hung on to that jubo pic fudged the exif and filed it in four years when the US won something.

  3. Sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks for writing it up for us homebodies, M. Poulet!

  4. […] Olympics PostmortemAlways friendly smiles on the faces of security at the end of the day – this is the re-entry point to the Media Village. It must be said that the volunteers, staff and security at the games all wore smiles 24/7 and were incredibly … […]

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