Chris Smith’s Olympic Memories

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Chris Smith is a legendary sports photographer in the UK whose career has stretched over five decades. He started working for his local newspaper, The Hartlepool Daily Mail, using a pre-war Zeiss Ikon quarter plate camera. He recalls that he was often expected to take one shot for each event he covered, go back to the office, develop and print his pictures before going out to cover more flower shows and Women’s Institute cake sales or a soccer match. His career in sports photography started at the Observer newspaper in 1970. Six years later he joined the The Sunday Times, where he worked for over thirty years. During that time he won The UK Sports Photographer of the Year four times – and Individual Sports Picture of the Year twice. His book ‘Sport in Focus’ shows his extensive coverage of sport and many of his award winning photos, though I think his pictures of Muhammad Ali over the years are exceptional.

I worked with Chris at The Sunday Times and my overriding memory of him, apart from his exceptional skill as a photographer, is that he is an absolute gentleman who is liked and admired throughout his industry. He can instantly put subjects at their ease and makes them his friends. His live photography skills are based on his ability to anticipate the action as it moves into frame and hit the shutter at just the right moment. That is no mean feat these days and comes, I think, partly from his early days in local papers. I remember, when the live soccer was close enough to the office – at Arsenal or Spurs perhaps – we would pick up the photographer’s film at half time and develop it at the office. Other photographers would send back three or four rolls, as they had hurriedly hosed down everything that had happened in front of them. I would have to look at over a hundred frames, most of them soft and meaningless, to find something useable. From Chris I always got a single roll, often with only a dozen frames, yet each one was pin sharp and a cracking shot. That’s class.

If you want to see more of Chris’s work, take a look at his website www.chrissmithphotography.co.uk

MUNICH 1972

My first Olympics games was Munich in 1972 for The Observer newspaper in London. Obviously now it is remembered for much more than the sport. I was at the rowing event a few miles away from the village when the hostage crisis broke. I remember seeing the security monitors at the lake out of the corner of my eye and actually thinking the security guys were watching some second rate thriller, instead of doing their job. With hindsight, we should all have got back to the Olympic village as quickly as we could, but we had no idea how long the crisis would take, or what the outcome would be and there was no transport available. We were told that we wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Olympic Village, but security was still so lax that my sports editor managed to get in by wearing a track suit and pretending to be one of the athletes. Security had been intentionally relaxed throughout the games, even though a few teams had expressed worries about it beforehand. However, we were constantly being told that the crisis would be over quickly and  so we stayed at the lake, watching it all unfold on TV like everyone else. When the tragic gunfight was over and we discovered that the israeli athletes were all dead, there was a strong feeling amongst everyone that the rest of the games should be cancelled, but the Olympic Committee decided to carry on – rightly I think.
My best memory is of watching Mary Peters taking gold for Great Britain for the women’s pentathlon. She narrowly beat her great rival Germany’s Heide Rosendahl, and set a new world record in the process.
I was using the Nikon F at the time. Zoom lenses were in their infancy and not great quality. We used prime lenses and my favourite was always my Nikon 400mm. Usually were we quite a distance from the action and so everything had to be blown up quite significantly. Funnily enough, we didn’t wire from Munich. We usually sent the film back by plane courier. However, these had administrative had delays at each end and, if the film was urgent, we often just asked a passenger to carry it back for us and it was collected by bike at Heathrow airport. They were innocent days when people were happy to help.

MONTREAL 1976

Naturally the security at the Montreal games was much tighter, though an american photographer still managed to operate for nearly a week with his  ID pass showing a picture of Yogi Bear. Although the sport was fantastic, with Nadia Comaneci scoring a perfect 10 and David Wilkie winning the Breaststroke for Britain, Montreal seemed to be dogged with problems. The stadium was still being built when we arrived, and there were still builders around when the Queen opened the Games. The Olympic flame went out and an official got into trouble for re-lighting it with his cigarette lighter. For me one of the highlights was seeing the great Cuban runner Alberto Juantorena, who was nicknamed ‘ The Horse ‘, smashing the world records for the 800M and 400M. Our great track hope was Brendan Foster , who managed to get a Bronze in the 10,000M. Shooting on a Nikon F2, Montreal was one of the few times I was happy to use my 24mm wide angle lens for the games to catch a panoramic view of the athletes and the stadium.

Olympics 1976 MONTREAL 5000 metres, photo chris smith

MOSCOW 1980

By now I was at The Sunday Times, though still shooting a Nikon F2. There doesn’t seem to have been a modern olympics that didn’t have some controversy, and the Moscow Olympics, taking place just after the Russians invaded Afghanistan, was no exception. Security was quite tight, with the added menace of the soviet political machine.  At least you could move around fairly easily. The track had a moat (empty of water!) that ran along the outside for photographers, so you could get really close to the action. I really enjoyed it as I was able to use my 85mm to full effect. I loved that lense and took some of my best pics with it – particularly some shots of Muhammad Ali in the Gym a few years before. Although the U.S. team were absent for political reasons, it was still a very competitive games, with the flying Scotsman Alan Wells, winning  a gold medal in the 100M. and a silver in the 200. He beat Cuban Silvio Leonard to become the first Briton since 1924 to win the Olympic 100M. It was the closest 100M race at the Olympics in 28 years, ending in a photo finish in which both runners timed at 10.25 seconds. And of course the great duo of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett winning gold medals in the 1500M. and the 800M. respectively. Of course in situations like this, all the press pack tend to stick together. It can be cheek by jowl sometimes but there is always a great feeling of excitement and expectation, at least before fatigue kicks in. Sometimes memories just come out of the blue. I remember my Sunday Times colleague,  Dudley Doust, interviewing the wonderful Russian gymnast Nelli Kim and asking her what the studs she wore in her ears were made from. ‘The bones of my lovers ‘came back the reply.

Olympics 1980 Moscow ALAN WELLS Photo Chris Smith
Being able to shoot from trackside was a great bonus for all the photographers in Moscow. It brought us so much closer to the action and we really felt like the conduit between the athletes and the crowd. One day I was called over by a group of Russians fans who handed me their camera, wanting me to photograph them together. I was just about to when it was grabbed out of my hands by a soldier, who was there for security. He took it back to the Russians, chastising them loudly. They, realising that they could be in big trouble shrank back into the crowd. the soldier turned to me and shouted ‘Niet” and walked away. Suddenly the UK seemed very far away…..

LOS ANGELES 1984

What a difference from Moscow! By now I was shooting on the Nikon F3. The whole event had that extra razmatazz of the movies. At the opening ceremony we were amazed to see 84 pianos playing the opening music and then a man wearing a jet pack flew into the arena like something out of a James Bond film. Even now I kick myself because I missed it completely – I wasn’t paying attention. There were plenty of stories for me to be chasing: South African middle distance runner Zola Budd, who had recently become British, in order to run in the games,  another gold medal for Seb Coe (the only 1500m runner to retain his olympic title ) and  Adrian Moorehouse continuing our dominance in the Breaststroke. This was the first Games to be funded privately and the rumor was that MacDonalds wanted the main pool in shape of burger…
In those days the Olympics was really subject to the time zones. There was no 24hr TV coverage, and many people got their Olympic news from the radio. Consequently the papers weren’t afraid of running pictures that were a day or two old if they were good enough. This was a huge relief, because it could easily take 45 minutes to dev, print and wire a single picture into the office and sometimes you could be miles from the media centre. With LA eight hours behind London time, it became difficult to remember which events could meet our deadlines.

SEOUL 1988

Seoul in 88 brought great controversy with Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ‘winning ‘ the 100M from his great rival Carl Lewis and our own Linford Christie. That is until Johnsons positive dope test. Of course, with hindsight, it was obvious that Johnson had been taking something. A canadian photographer told us that only a year before he had been just a good college athlete. Certainly, if you compare pictures of his muscular frame in Seoul with earlier shots, there could have been no doubt. I remember reading that when he got back to Canada, Johnson was in a restaurant with his car parked outside and some guy smashed his windscreen and ran away – a poor escape plan. It always made me laugh because even though he was disgraced he was still the fastest man on the planet. Needless to say Johnson caught the guy almost immediately. The opening ceremony was stunning – they all are in their own different ways- though it will probably be remembered as to one where the doves of peace were incinerated by the olympic flame.

olympics 1988 Seoul BEN JOHNSON 100 FINAL photo Chris Smith
The sprint final was held on a Saturday and so was of huge importance to to me working for the next days Sunday paper – it would be the first showing of the event, which was the most eagerly awaited of the games as Carl Lewis was probably the most famous sportsman in the world at the time. With Seoul 7 hours ahead of us, it was relatively easy to send the pictures in to the office on time. However, we still had to get the picture!  I had shot the Moscow final from side on from just in front of the starting blocks, but this wasn’t an option here, so most of us knew we would have to shoot long  down the track  (with my trusty 400mm!) and get them as they crossed the line. To make sure I got one of the best positions I got there extra early. Three of us sneaked into the Olympic stadium by a side door at 5 am. Inside the stadium was deserted save for a couple of security men  We worked out our preferred positions to cover the finish and set up our cameras and tripods. For me it was 50M beyond the finishing line, slightly elevated and looking straight down the track.  I had my F3 and 400mm on a monopod and, as back up, another body with my 180mm set up on a tripod, focussed on the finish line and operated with a pedal. After setting up we had something like 5 hours to kill before events started so what to do ? I made a suggestion to the other photographers and so we all vaulted over onto the track and had our own race around a totally empty stadium with  the Olympic flame pulsating brightly against a midnight blue sky. The music in my head as we ran was of course  the theme tune from Chariots of Fire by Vangellis. Fantastic –what a  memory , if  you tried it today you would probably get shot.
Because we had the time zones in our favor I was able to take my time sending the Johnson picture back to the office. I devved the film and sent the picture, using my nikon transmitter, in two halves to be joined back together at the office, to try to get the best quality possible. Color in newspapers was still in it’s infancy and so I was still shooting BW. It seems strange now, but the presses dictated when we would change up from monochrome. I think this was the games when the difference in coverage between TV and the printed press became apparent. The time zones really favored TV and the papers looked a bit drab by comparison.

BARCELONA 1992

Barcelona in 92 provided a wonderful opening ceremony which reflected the city’s nautical inheritance. The flame was ignited by Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo, who shot his arrow over the cauldron. it all looked very dramatic as it burst into life, though of course some technical guy really flicked a switch. I was using the Nikon F4 by then. This was the first Olympics I shot entirely in color, and the first night time opening ceremony. It wasn’t too difficult, but the color film was less forgiving at 800 and 1600 ASA which I needed to use for most of the track and field events.  The time zones were so close that the editors in London could watch events live and then start asking for things they had seen on the TV. Of course the TV companies had dozens of cameras all around the stadium – there was only one of me!  This was also the Olympics were the large agencies started to pump out hundreds of pictures a day which put even more pressure on the newspaper photographers.
Barcelona is a beautiful city and I have a particular fond memory of photographing the diving event  at the Olympic pool high above the city with
Audi Cathedral providing a spectacular backdrop.

Olympics 1992 Barcelona diver at barcelona Photo Chris Smith

ATLANTA 1996

I will always remember Atlanta for it’s opening ceremony – and the heat! Unlike some openers which had thousands of synchronised performers, which was difficult to capture in a still, Atlanta was designed to be seen through a tv screen and that helped us too. The shadowgraph of athletes in silouette against a white background had echoes of a Grecian freeze was really striking .
But the biggest surprise for me was the appearance of the great Muhammad Ali to light the Olympic  flame. I had photographed him a few times – the last time when he lost the Larry Holmes fight in Vegas in 1980 – and it was so poignent to see him again carrying his illness with such dignity.

Olympics 1996 Atlanta, The opening ceremony. Photo Chris Smith

I never used digital at any of the Olympics  I covered. They still weren’t good enough quality, especially in the skin tones. Looking back now at some of my used pictures, shot on 800 or 1600 ASA, they look really poor quality, especially if they were cropped, but I think they also represented the fact that these were live events and their graininess in some way adds to the drama. I did notice that the games got progressively harder to cover, as we had more restrictions imposed upon us by the host authorities – usually in favour of their sponsors or TV companies.
Gradually the games became more about the event itself and how it could project the host nation to the world, and less about the actual sport. Where as once it was a gathering of sportsmen, photographed by sports photographers who had a real feel and understanding for the competitors, The Olympics is now a major news event and commercial venture. Big photo agencies send dozens of photographers and support staff, many of whom probably just go from one international event to another. Some of these guys don’t have the same love of the actual sport and the athletes that we did, they are simply recording events for posterity. There is a difference between thinking a shot through- crafting an image – and recording an event that takes place infront of you. Sadly, I think we rely too much on the all-encompassing technology and not enough on the inspiration of the photographer. I do sympathise with todays photographers though. There will be no time to enjoy the fact that they are at a great world event with some of the greatest athletes ever to compete. They will be on a treadmill 24 hours a day hounded by their desks to ensure they don’t miss anything……

See More of Chris’s Remarkable Photo’s Here

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