After a 14-hour plane ride home from France, my 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, hugged me and asked, "Daddy, did you see Kristi Yamaguchi?" It was the first of many questions I've been asked since photographing the Olympics in Albertville for the Associated Press that have made me consider what a completely distorted view either I or the television-viewing public has of the Olympic Games.
I was assigned as part of a three-man team to cover the cross-country and biathlon events in the small French town of Les Saisies. One of my partners, a Norwegian war photographer, Morten Hvaal, had just spent three months dodging bullets in Yugoslavia. My other teammate, Bill Waugh, an AP staff photographer from Milwaukee, had spent the past two months organizing the photo pool at the Jeffrey Dahmer hearings. I think all three of us were looking forward to an exciting but perhaps more relaxed lifestyle while living in this beautiful village.After a closer look at the schedule we realized this was going to be a lot closer to a marathon than a vacation. We were scheduled to shoot at least one event in either the skiing or the biathlon every day of the Olympics. And the kicker was that every night we also had to shoot, develop and transmit photos from the medal ceremonies. That roughly translated to a minimum of 14-hour days for two weeks straight. So much for relaxing and enjoying the ambience of France and the Games.
Albertville was a historic Olympics from a photo-journalist's point of view. In the past, each venue had a support staff of photo editors and technicians that would edit and print photos in darkrooms and then transmit the photos through the phone lines on a drum that would take about 30 minutes for a color photo.
In Albertville there was no darkroom. After shooting the event we would put our film in a processor similar to the ones you see in a one-hour lab. We would then edit the film and place the negative in a Leafax digital negative transmitter. In the Leafax we could enlarge, crop, tone and write a caption for each photo and send it to the Associated Press hub in about two minutes. From the hub, located in the town of Annecy, the AP would send the digital photos throughout the various parts of the world on the Photo-stream satellite or phone lines. Among the three of us, we would transmit about 25 black-and-white and 25 color projects each day.
I think I became a Nordic-events expert for the AP by default back at Lake Placid in 1980. Americans don't find the events very glamorous, and nobody was asking for it. I love to cross-country ski and was delighted with the chance to cover the events, and it has given me a paid ticket to every Winter Olympics since then.
Shooting for the AP isn't relaxing, it's war. Every morning we would get up early and study the event we were to shoot, review the starting lists, scout for the best places to shoot from and decide when to ship the film. The AP would keep close track of the major papers around the world who took AP along with other photo agencies such as Reuters and AFP. Every day we would get a report on the Olympic photo play on the computer to see if we won the play. In regards to the competition we followed the adage, "It is better to eat the bear than to have the bear eat you." Each morning when we won the play there would be loud whoops and cries as we congratulated ourselves on "eating the bear."
Photographing the skiing is fairly straightforward. It is important to find a place with good light and a clean background. It is usually best to shoot from a low angle, hopefully when racers are kicking one of their skis in the air. Except for the relays, the skiers leave at 30-second intervals. At least one person is assigned to shoot everybody. The thing that makes it crazy is when you only have one shot at each skier and inevitably the leader will be hidden behind someone when they go by you.
The biathlon is one of the craziest sports I've ever photographed. People ski like crazy and then try to shoot targets with .22 caliber rifles. When they miss they either take penalty laps or have extra time added to their results depending on the race. While shooting from a platform with lenses the size of bazookas, you try to get a good photo of everyone and several photos of the leaders while praying that the winner doesn't slip in between the others without you noticing. You end up shooting an embarrassing amount of film.
About five days into the Games and after our first day of the biathlon, it was apparent that we needed more film. Morten called headquarters and said, "Look, there are 80 women skiing straight toward us with guns and bullets, if you want us to shoot them you better send more film!"
Only two times can I remember having any negative feelings during the Olympics. The first was while listening to a reporter from CBS trying to coach gold-medal winner Vegard Ulvang into doing a "Terminator" impression. It made me wonder what people were getting back home of the Olympics. My other bad Olympic moment was doing my own special Olympic dance while trying to decide whether it was more important to shoot the men's relay or find a bathroom. No wonder Hubert Humphrey said to never take a bathroom for granted.
After the first week everything starts to blend together. Instead of finding the best place to eat late at night, you simply want something fast so you can get to bed. After the first 10 days I still had vitamins but had run out of Advil for the sore back and shoulders I incurred by carrying all the equipment. I'll always remember trying to build a shelter in a tree with a rain tarp after waiting for four hours in the snow and rain for the second event to start. My large 300mm lens was so wet I couldn't focus through it. I had to remind myself of all of the fun everyone back home thought I was having. That night Morten, having spent the day with the flu, smiled at Bill and me and said, "War is hell, and this is worse."
It is amazing what a little sleep, blue skies and a little "bear meat" can do for your attitude. Once our camera lenses cleared up, our attitudes did as well. By the time we could pronounce the town we lived in and could order the food we ate it was time to go home.
The French I dealt with were very friendly. The best part about being able to photograph the Olympics was the cultural experience of interacting with people from all over the world. For me, there are few things better than sitting down to a fine French meal while trying to decipher the different languages in the background.
Forgive me if I smile when people ask me how great the Olympics were. What did I think of Tomba, the ice skating and the opening ceremonies? Somehow I think the experience I had and what others envision are two things.
Yes, it was a great experience. I just need a few days' rest to remember how great it was - and I don't even want to think about Norway for another year.