In 2000 the Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay travelled across Oceania and Australia for 115 days. I was the Official Photographer for the event. I’ve never written about the experience until today…
22nd May – 7 June 2000: Guam, Palau, Micronesia, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, New Zealand
8 June to 15th September: Australia
You may wonder why I am writing this story now – after 16 years. Well, for a few reasons. But the main thing that got me started was storage. Storage is the bane of my life! I’ve been travelling from country to country for many years. And most of my ‘stuff’ ends up stored in boxes in one country or another. Right now I can count 4 countries that serve as major storage locations for my ‘stuff’.
But recently, in between projects I found myself back in Sydney over the summer I finally took the time to re-look at my Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay images. And what struck me was two things. Firstly, not many of my images were ever made public. I got plenty of Australian and international newspaper and magazine coverage, but that was only ever 2 or 3 images a day. The SOCOG (Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee) website had a tiny on-line gallery – but really, back then, the internet was so new I doubt anyone ever looked at the web site. I don’t think I ever did!
The internet was not what is is today. No one thought to go online to look at photos and most people didn’t even have internet at home. I remember in the SOCOG office we had to get special permission to justify why your desktop computer should be connected to the internet. (which was fair enough – there was nothing much to see and you couldn’t search like you can now). But I digress…
The second reason was that I discovered that all these horrible, over exposed/under exposed/out of white balance, tiny thumbnail digital images could be brought to life, re-mastered as it were, using the new software we have today. Combing through the 25,000+ photos I shot during the Torch Relay I found that a lot of the images I thought were unusable are now very much alive and of surprisingly good quality.
Tweaking contrast, exposure and colour balance, and increasing resolution gives them a new life. New software has allowed me to get the most out of the raw image files. And it is a blessing that the camera shot in ‘raw’ file format as the original image sensor data is still there, untouched. If I had shot the files as jpegs (which I did for a later project) I would not be able to extract this original data and the images would be always the messy soup they were recorded as.
Of the 25,000+ images I shot probably have never looked at more than 50% of them – not even on the same day I shot them. Time was always against me. The laptop I used had a terrible screen. The software was slow. It was usually 10pm by the time I had managed to get a minimum of 4 images transmitted back to newspapers and then burnt a CD worth of files to archive. And the next day we would be on a plane at 6 am to arrive in a new country at 8am to do it all over again.
But now technology has caught up. And I have a few weeks spare. So lets re-master the Torch Relay! Don’t expect miracles – this is still 16 year old technology and even a $400 digital camera from today will kick its ass – but the re-mastered versions look a lot better than they ever have…
My first image I’m showing is actually not a digital image at all. Its a very bad quality scan of a film shot I took in the office. I’m starting with this because it reminds of the team I worked with and reminds me of the the story of just how I became the Official Photographer of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay…
In 1997 I got a job at SOCOG as the AV Coordinator. Basically, I was the guy who helped everyone in the office set up their AV equipment for meetings and presentations. It was a rapidly expanding office. When I started there were approx 250 staff. By 1999 we had over 600. My role grew as more staff had more meetings and more presentations. The role expanded into setting up for press conferences and sponsor meetings and off-site events. I started filming the events too. I loved it. And it meant I got to work with every department an Olympic Organising committee contains. From sports, to media, to sponsorship, to IT ,Torch Relay and Opening Ceremonies. I was there for 3 years , and to this day it is still the longest full time job I have ever had.
Like most Australians I had no idea what a Torch Relay was. But socialising with the Torch Relay department got me interested. It was the then head of Torch Relay media, John Flower who mentioned the job position of ‘Official Photographer’. I had an Arts degree and had worked in television, film and photography before joining the Olympic circus. So I was keen. But it took another year of campaigning before I was able to actual apply for the job. My ‘campaign’ was to produce propaganda videos and send them to the Torch Relay team. One was a team building video, while others were more direct calls to ask for the job. One was even a sinister ‘black mail’ video. It was all in good fun – and apparently livened up their weekly team meetings.
Finally in February, Torch Relay Director Di Henry took a risk and gave me the job. For this chance I will be forever grateful to her.
There was not a lot of research information about how an Official Photographer goes about his role on a Torch Relay. Di and John had gone to the Atlantic 1996 Olympic Games as observers. The information they passed onto me was – “the photographer runs around a lot, and is everywhere all the time”. And so with that brief I braced myself for the adventure.
Learning to Ride
One day in a Torch Relay team meeting Di casually mentioned about the Harley Davidson sponsorship deal. They were providing 4 police Harley Davidson motorcycles and 1 Photographers Harley. “You can ride, can’t you Greg” Di said. It almost wasn’t a question – just a statement. So I quickly replied ‘ah…yeah…’. That evening I went home and booked into a motorcycle riders course! I had 6 weeks to get my licence and learn to ride a 1200cc beast.
I passed the course two weeks later. But the day Harley Davidson delivered the bike to the office I was still too scared to ride. I had only just learnt to ride a postman’s 125cc bike. How the hell was I going to even balance on a 350KG beast? I made the excuse I was busy that afternoon and left the Harley was left in the office carpark for the next 2 days. I was building up the courage (and planning a time when no-one would see my first attempt to start it!).
Eventually I got used to it and rode it around Sydney for 2 weeks to get better prepared to use it on the Torch Relay. Although in the end, it wasn’t used that much on the relay. It was big and heavy and not ideal for travelling at 6kmh. When not used by me it had to be lifted onto a supply truck to be moved ahead. The truck driver hated having to put it on and off every few days. So in the end we pretty much left it on the truck. Even a lighter bike would not have been ideal because it forces you to have to commit to using it all day. When really, as a photographer, you need to be able to jump around and shoot from different vehicles. One minute on foot. The next on the back of the media truck and then you board a train or tram or a boat for a special ‘alternative mode of transport’ event. So you have to ditch the bike – but as its a Torch Relay, you are always moving forwards – so how do you get your bike to meet you ahead? Short of hiring a dedicated bike rider, you’re stuck with it. Anyway, it was a fun story – but not the best planning.
Just before the Harley was delivered to me, I received another expensive, but also terrifying gift. Kodak delivered the digital camera to me. The love it/hate it DCS620. It was Digital ! It cost $28,000! I also got to use a laptop! I was given a mobile phone! And a satellite phone! It was like christmas – but be careful what you wish for… (or – life is never easy and it is never glamorous).
This was May 2000. The internet was new. Digital cameras were new. Data over mobile phones was almost non-existent. It was a brave new world!
Kodak (remember them?) were a major sponsor of the Olympic Games and as such they agreed to provide a digital camera to me to shoot the Torch Relay on. If not for them, we would be stuck with the choice of paying over AU$30,000 for one of their new cameras or doing it the old fashion way of photojournalism. The ‘old fashion’ way – well, really it was still the current way in those days, was to shoot on film and either ship the film back to the office to have developed and scanned or develop the film yourself in a make-shift dark room you would have to set up in the bathroom of your hotel each night. Dragging chemicals and enlargers around the Pacific islands and Australia and staying up until 2am processing and drying film was not going to be fun. I had never had to work that way before. I hated the dark room process. And shipping film back to the office was going to be a 3 day journey (or longer) for most of the Torch Relay. The whole point of shooting everyday was so we could give images to newspapers and news agencies so they could publish the very next day. If they received them 4 or 5 days late they would not be interested. Old news is anything that happened more than 24 hours ago.
Just 6 months earlier Kodak had released the first professional grade digital camera – the DSC620c. A few non pro digital cameras had been around for about a year – but the image quality was so bad as to be unusable for almost everything.
The DCS620c was a 2MP camera. To put that into context – its picture size is 1728×1152. The iPhone camera is 8MP. My current Canon DSLR is 22MP (and costs $2,500!)
While the technology was pretty amazing for the time – it was also unreliable. Taking a photo in anything but perfect light (eg bright midday sun) would result in mostly over exposed (or occasionally very under exposed) images. Colour temperature recordings were always wildly off balance. On one day setting colour balance to 5,000k looked redder than a tomato, and on another day it would look green. Using a flash was such a random experience only one in 10 would ever expose adequately. Even when setting the camera manually, the shutter speeds selected did not always record to that speed. 1/125th might get a metadata reading of 1/60th. So when reading the digital file on the laptop using Kodak’s dedicated software it would render the file as 1 stop over exposed. In the heat of trying to edit images and get them transmitted before deadlines expired, it was a frustrating experience.
There are three possible explanations to this digital disatser. 1. I may have had a wonky camera, 2.it may just have been the state of technology in 2000, or 3.I may have been a dud photographer… I like to believe it was the 2nd excuse….
One of the unique features of this new digital camera world was being able to review your shots on the little LCD screen on the back of the camera. When I say little – I should say postage stamp size! And the screen resolution was so bad you could only see that a. you had taken a picture and b. it was in colour. You had no idea if the image was in focus or if the colour settings were giving anything usable. But yes, it was a step up from film cameras in that regard.
The next challenge with digital was editing the files. In may 2000 laptops were a luxury. You were either an executive or very rich to be toting a laptop. IBM (remember them?) were also an Olympic sponsor and so provided me with a laptop. But this was the days before USB and bluetooth and retina screens. My laptop screen had an 800×600 resolution on a 12inch TFT crystal display. So viewing the digital image from the camera on this poor quality screen made it very difficult to get an accurate take on what adjustments were needed. And all images from the DCS620 needed a lot of adjustments!
The software was basic and you would open one image at a time. Adjust colours and then re-save to the internal hard drive. Internal drive was 4.8GB (yes – total hard drive size of 4.8GB!). There were no external drives. No USB drives. When the hard drive was full I would connect a SCSI (wikipedia that to understand!) connected external CD writer and make a back up copy of the files. It took about 45mins to burn on CD (DVDs were not yet around).
Then came the really fun part. Transmitting the files. It was email – but ‘transmitting’ was the term used because it really was a technical experience. Some mobile phones could connect to data. It required the phone to be connected via a special cable to the laptop. You then dialled up the internet providers special number and crossed your fingers. Speeds were about 9.6kbs (to put that into context, your iPhone today can transmit and receive at over 3mbs !! So more than 300x faster. Sending one of my photos in 2000 would be like sending an sms today ie. instantaneous)
And then you held your breath…
The pictures from the 2MB camera produced a JPEG of approx 1.6MB after editing. But 1.6MB would take days to send. So I would reduce the file size down to a tiny 200KB to 300KB. (I really cant believe that myself now – KB not MB!!). On a good day a 200KB file would take 25minutes to email. And if it dropped out after the 20th minute, you just dial in again and start from the beginning. Based on these numbers, I would generally only send out 4 or 5 images a day. Or sometimes one if things were really bad.
To put the transmit speeds into a rough context: your iPhone today can transmit and receive at over 3mbs – So more than 300x faster!! Sending one of my photos from 2000 using an iPhone today would be like sending an sms – ie. instantaneous, not the 20+minutes it took back then.
During the first 15 days of the relay we were in remote Oceania countries. Mobile phones did not work at all. I carried a large satellite phone that opened up like a briefcase. You had to point it in the direction of the satellite in the sky – placing it outdoors or the roof would block the signal. It was as slow if not slower than a mobile phone but cost about 100x as much per minute. From memory I only managed to send about 6 photos via satellite – before giving up. I never saw the monthly bill for the sat phone – but I’m sure it was rather high.
The other alternative to sending photos was to use the hotel internet or land line. Back in 2000 most small hotels had no internet. So I had the joy of plugging the laptop modem into various phones at outback hotels and motels to try and dial into the internet.
Occasionally I would get a ‘fast’ speed of 28kbs. But mostly it was as slow as a mobile phone – but slightly more reliable.
Now, was all this better than having to shoot on film and develop my own negatives? Probably – but only just!
Running, Walking, Crawling (Never stopping, Never going back)
But the thing to bear in mind here is what type of project this was. An Olympic Torch Relay is a constantly moving, 6 km/h, wandering circus across 20,000km. Everyday. From 7am to 8pm. A new hotel every single night. Events taking place all day, every day. Stop for an hour and you are now 1 hour behind the Relay. You must catch up. And you need to negotiate the horrific traffic jams that the Relay is leaving in its wake. So shooting the Relay, capturing all the important moments and yet still managing to send photos every day was a significant challenge. If I had known the real details before I signed up for the job I might not have been such an energetic and excited puppy. I’ve since heard of more than a few photographers who have been employed to shoot relays over the last 10 years and cracked under pressure and had to give up, saying it was too much for one person to handle.
But I was young (much younger than I realised when I look back at some of the photos of me at the time) and I was going to grab the bull by the horns. And we had a great team of individuals on the Torch Relay crew – which made the long, long days still enjoyable. It also helped that we were all doing it for the first time. There were no ‘experts’ as there are today. We lived and learned how to produce the biggest Olympic Torch Relay ever undertaken – one day at a time.
Our first day out with the torch (the torch being any of the 10,000 individual torches as apposed to the Flame – of which there is only one – actually that’s not strictly true, there are 3 flames but I’ll get to that later) after leaving Sydney to start the Torch Relay in Guam was on the tiny Manus Island (now infamous as as location of Australian governments off-shore immigration processing). It was a stop to re-fuel the plane and our first encounter with some locals.
We weren’t there for official Torch Relay business – but there was a crowd (I guess a jet landing on their tiny runway was news!) so we got out a torch and passed it around. And my first real Torch Relay photo!
And so the real day 1was Guam (at least for us – the Torch Relay of every Olympic games actually starts in Olympia in Greece and does a week around Greece – but that’s really all run by the Greeks themselves). I was nervous. My first real Torchbearer – with a real Flame. I had to get a good shot of this other wise my future on the 125 days of the relay would be in doubt. Thankfully it was a good set up for taking a photo. The sun was bright. No real challenge for the finicky digital camera. The backdrop quite nice. Some interesting visual lines to focus the eye. Even today, I think its one of the highlight images I took over the entire 115 days (but I’m sure I’m still a bit emotionally attached to it for obvious reasons)
For weeks the advance team had been raving to us about the beautiful photo opportunities they had planned for us in Palau. They had planned canoe trips across the crystal clear waters and the lush green islands as a backdrop. As soon as we got dockside the skies opened up and it rained like there was no tomorrow! It was a nightmare to shoot and keep everything dry. Looking back, the rain adds some dramatic effect – just not your traditional Pacific Island canoeing photos
Day 03 – Federated States of Micronesia (24 May, 2000)
Unfortunately most of the good images of day 3 in Micronesia have been lost. Of course the not so great ones survived – Murphy’s law!
This image shows a young me (long hair and all) in my hotel room.
Everyone goes to a lot of trouble to keep these little flames burning 24hrs a day from the beginning of the relay in Greece right through until the Opening Ceremony in Sydney. It would be logistically a lot easier to light a new one each morning with a match – but Olympic tradition is strong. And for all the fakery and staged moments, the one true part of the Olympic journey is that this flame is the original flame.
If a torch goes out (by wind or rain or other hiccup) the miners lantern is always on hand to take a new, original flame from. So yes, there are 3 flames at any one time. One on the burning torch and two resting somewhere nearby (usually a security vehicle – or at night in the Flame Security’s hotel room) in the miners safety lanterns. Protocol is to only let the public see one Flame.
There was also a Flame that was sent back to the SOCOG office in Sydney in an additional safety lantern as a ‘disaster insurance’ version in case we really screwed up with the backups on the road. But I never saw it and never heard anything about whether it really was kept alight back in the SOCOG offices.