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|| News Item: Posted 2004-03-03

My Moscow Adventure: The Moscow-Utah Youth Games
By Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Under the Moscow and Utah flags, the start of the 100m Breast Stroke. Swimming competition at Moscow's Olympijski Sports Complex.
I've always been fascinated by Russia. And when my photo editor asked me if I wanted to spend ten days in Moscow last July covering the Moscow-Utah Youth Games, there was no hesitation. Wait, did you catch that- the Moscow-Utah Youth Games? Yes, it was as bizarre an idea as I'd ever heard of, too.

To build up credentials for a strong Olympic bid, Russia is hosting all kinds of international athletic competitions. The idea behind this one was to have a bunch of high school athletes from Utah and Moscow compete in the spirit of brotherly love and compassion. And as I did my pre-departure research on Russia and Moscow it seemed obvious that Team Utah had no chance.

The state of Utah's total population is about 2 million people. The city of Moscow's population is around 9 million people, and someone told me that 90% of Russia's Olympians come from Moscow. Before competition even started, I noticed a telling sign- the flags. Utah's flag shows an eagle, a beehive and some pretty flowers. Moscow's flag has a guy on a horse spearing a dragon through the throat. Like I've said for years, "Put your money on the dragon-killer!"

With about a month to go, the preparation began. If you're taking notes for when you get your first international assignment...

Tip #1: Prepare- Read everything you can get your hands on before you leave. That's obvious. But here is the trick: store the information away, not necessarily as fact but as reference material. Don't get caught up on what you read (fantastic tidbits like how rouge taxi drivers in Zimbabwe have been known to drop you off a block from your hotel so their criminal accomplices can knife you). You may find that the reality on the ground is different. Use what you read as a base of knowledge that you can draw on as needed.

I knew there was no way I could learn Russian in the time I had. Not even a little. Instead I focused on learning to pronounce Cyrillic, the 36 character Russian alphabet. Even if I didn't know the language, I figured I'd be able to read signs, menus, etc. Of all the preparation I did for the trip, this turned out to be priceless. As we walked around Moscow, the people I was with would swivel their heads around confused and lost. I was able to lead us around, deciphering words like internet, pizza, chocolate, casino, press center, etc. I would have had no idea that "pectopah" is roughly pronounced "restaurant."

Another time this skill came in handy was when my phone woke me from a deep sleep at 5am and I found myself on deadline, reading names off a basketball roster to a colleague. There was a bigger problem than my incoherent 5am state of mind- this particular roster was printed in Cyrillic. Luckily I was able to decipher the names. Disaster (that time) averted.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Trent's room at the Hotel Rossiya.
Also in Moscow to cover the games was Lya Wodraska, a sportswriter for the Tribune and Keith Johnson, a photographer for the Deseret Morning News. The three of us spent a lot of time together at the various sport venues and restaurants, and became good friends as well.

Upon arrival, we checked into the most monstrous hotel I've ever stayed at. Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful hotels in Moscow. We simply got screwed. The Hotel Rossiya was actually a frightening place. Some of it was funny-frightening, like the hookers handing out their business cards as you walked in the front door. The not funny part was how my room was directly above the nightclub, which provided a booming bass beat to keep me awake for two nights straight.

There were other funny things about it. To get into the place, you had to show a guard your guest ID card. Once you got to your floor, a woman would exchange your ID card for your room key.

One day there was a girl, maybe 17 years old, helping the woman handing out keys. They were talking about how hot it was in Moscow that day. We had just come from a record heat wave in Utah, so Moscow seemed very pleasant. Always ready for small talk, Keith smiled and said to them, "You should see what it's like where I live." The girl's jaw dropped as she interpreted an alternate meaning to his statement and she firmly said, "I will NOT come visit your room."

Our first day is spent figuring out how we're going to send photos. The hotel is useless, but we find a 24-hour Internet cafe a short walk away.

What seems like a short walk on the first day quickly becomes longer every time we make it, especially carrying all our gear on our backs. This Internet cafe in the basement of a mall becomes a regular late night stop, where we see fellow member Rogan Taylor uploading his photographs while his family sleeps in chairs all around him. He's also staying at the Rossiya. Another victim of our shared travel agent.

Opening Ceremonies are held at the Palace of Sports in the Luzhniki Sports Complex. After passing through about ten security checkpoints I found a good spot to shoot from. The arena was a sweatbox, and throughout the show we were dripping with sweat as dancers, singers, and circus performers did their thing. The stands were packed with kids wearing matching t-shirts, chanting "Mosk-va!" over and over and repeatedly blowing plastic horns (the horns and chanting went on all week- you couldn't escape it at any venue, or even now-in my head).

I got no sleep that second night either as my heart pounded to the disco beat coming from a few floors below me. The party went on all night long. In the morning we went to meet with members of the Team Utah organizing group at their hotel. It was a complete shock.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

An exhausted Keith Johnson on the last day of the Moscow-Utah Youth Games.
We found them sitting in a luxurious dining room feasting on the best breakfast buffet I have ever seen. And, they could connect to the Internet from their rooms. Lya and I checked out of the Rossiya immediately and found refuge at this new spot, the Metropol. No more walking to the Internet cafe, and we were finally able to sleep through the night.

Keith was stuck at the Rossiya for a few more days, and we made sure to give him as much grief as possible. He told us about the middle-aged hooker that tried to get into his room, and we kept rubbing it in about how good we had it at the Metropol. One night at dinner, Keith offered me some of an appetizer he had ordered. "No thanks," I said. "Now that I've checked out of the Rossiya I don't need as many calories." It was especially cruel, and we all laughed heartily.

Once the games began, our typical day began with the Metropol's grand breakfast spread. We would work all day, skipping lunch. A nice, expensive dinner would follow and we'd save editing and transmitting for last. As long as my photos were in by 6am the next morning (Moscow time) my deadline was met.

Each day we'd find a different taxi to take us to a venue. Ladas, Volgas, the occasional Mercedes. I remember one taxi just reeking of gas and burning oil. It made noises that no car should make, but it got us to the venue. Another time Lya was getting into the front passenger seat of a taxi and stopped short when she saw a big, wet oil stain on the seat.

The driver promptly took his reading material and laid it on the seat to cover the stain so she could sit down. Instead of the oil stain, Lya was able to sit on the centerfold spread of a porno mag. "I started the day sitting on a woman's face," she said later, laughing about it.

We spent a lot of our time at the Olympijski, a large arena where most of the events were taking place. Basketball, gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, swimming, and water polo competitions were all here. I remember walking into the place on the first day to find the Utah women's basketball team sitting on the bench looking confused. They were on their way to losing by 50 points.

Wrestling wasn't much better. When the Utah wrestlers weren't being dropped on their heads, the Russians threw them around like rag dolls. That's what you get when you have a Utah state champion wrestler going up against Russia's best (and in one weight class, the champion of all Europe). After the first match, the Utah loser is in such a daze that I take a quick photo of the ref holding up the Russian's hand. This keeps happening and I come with the idea to tell the story in a series of photos.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Trent's bathroom at the Hotel Rossiya.
Sure enough, every Utah wrestler loses, and this strip of photos runs the length of the front page. (For the record, one Utah wrestler did win the next two matches and winning the gold medal in his weight class.)

Tip #2: Don't Focus on How Your Photos are Used- When you're working long days away from home, worrying about how your photos are being used will only bring you down. I got a real morale boost seeing my wrestling strip on our front page via our website, but there are always days when you wonder if everyone's forgotten you're out there working so hard. Don't get caught up in it. Your energy and focus should be on what you're shooting next.

Hanging around the Utah organizers was always interesting. It was an interesting group. The guy in charge of security for Team Utah got pick-pocketed, losing his wallet, cash, and credit cards. Another organizer had this over-the-top positive attitude.

No matter what he was talking about, the words were "Isn't this absolutely incredible?" or "This is so amazing, isn't it?" or "They really know how to do things right over here, don't they? This is incredible!" I kept imagining the guy getting blown up by a Chechen terrorist, and hearing his last words: "Wow! This is really an incredible way to go! What a surprise!"

Okay, more tips.

Tip #3: Work Your Ass Off- I like to think of assignments like this (and the Olympics for that matter) as great assignments that I look forward to looking back on. Done right, they are grueling experiments in mental and physical exhaustion. But you never know when your next big assignment will be. You never know when you'll be back in a foreign country. Take full advantage of it and work hard. Put everything into it. That will help to ensure you get a chance to go on another one.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Narrator (in a heavy Russian accent): "And now let's take a look forward at the Moscow-Utah Winter Games of 2004." Closing Ceremonies, Moscow-Utah Youth Games and the Palace of Sports, Luzhniki.
Tip #4: Do these two things whenever possible: Eat & Use the Restroom- When you're working in a foreign environment, you never know when or where your next meal will come from. Same with the toilet (or whatever goes for one). Do not pass up either of these services with the thought that you'll another chance soon. It's likely you won't. I always take a collection of energy bars for when I miss breakfast or lunch, which is just about every day on a trip like this.

Tip #5: Admit It- Your Hotel Sucks- Yes, your hotel sucks. If you can do anything about it, move out immediately and find better accommodations. If you can't, write it all down so you can tell your co-workers all about it. That helps them realize how hard the trip was.

Tip #6: Find a Local- The best international photojournalists have a network of fixers, people who serve as drivers, translators, contact-makers, etc. You probably don't have the budget to employ a real fixer for the duration of your trip. But you can and should make as many local contacts as you can. You'll find plenty of regular people ready and willing to help you get around, make contacts, etc. And don't forget to show your appreciation when someone does help out- even a small gift (something from back home) goes a long way.

Tip #7: Relax- Things aren't going to go perfectly, no matter how well you've planned it. So when there's a problem related to you being in a foreign country, take a breath and relax. Remember you're far from home and that's pretty cool. Then figure a way around the problem. That long walk from the Internet cafe to the Hotel Rossiya in the middle of the night with your backpack full of gear when you were already completely exhausted DID suck. But at least it was a long walk around the Kremlin. Keep the positive in mind.

I guess I should talk a bit more about the sports, right? Well, it was simply that- sports. The venues in Moscow were well lit, the organization was great, getting around was no problem. The people working in the press centers were always a big help. I had an amazing time in Moscow.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Yury Zenchuk performs a screaming guitar solo during the Closing Ceremonies of the Moscow-Utah Games, in the Palace of Sports at the Luzhniki sports complex.
Team Utah had a few bright moments, but for the most part they were dominated at every level by the Russians. The Moscow gymnasts magically bounced around like they had wings, while the Utah gymnasts thudded to the floor. Nearly every event was a sad mismatch.

The first two games of the boys basketball series provided some great drama, but a week of eating nothing but cafeteria food (actual choices: stuffed cabbage leaves, pork schnitzel, boiled runner beans, boiled rice with vegetables, fried potatoes) finally caught up to the kids in game three, which they lethargically lost.

Toward the end of the week, we were losing it as well. I remember shutting down during the five-hour track meet on the last day. I stayed out in the sweaty sun trying to get every shot I could find when my body was only interested in laying down in the shade. Only after it was over did I realize everyone else had been lounging in the shady press center making happy talk with the beautiful Russian woman copying the results.

By the time Closing Ceremonies came around, we were all punch-drunk with exhaustion. It was like I was high, and everything made me laugh. Especially when this middle-aged rock guitarist named Yuri came out and played a five-minute heavy metal guitar solo. He was so enthusiastic, but I just couldn't stop laughing. Then the announcer said, "And now let's take a look forward at the Moscow-Utah Winter Games of 2004, (in Salt Lake City)" and a man and woman came out on skies and had simulated ski-sex. What an ending!

This past month, the winter part of the Moscow-Utah Youth Games was held in Salt Lake City. Through whatever fluke of scheduling, I only shot the Opening and Closing Ceremonies- no sports. It was just as well. Even though admission was free, the turnout was painfully small and disappointing. One of my co-workers said that at the event he covered, "Not even the athletes' parents bothered to show up."

Team Utah's hockey squad lost three games to the Russians by horrific margins- 11-0, 17-0, 18-3.

But if they want us back next summer for a little "competition," it's all about brotherhood and unity, baby. And this time we'll sneak in some ringers from Idaho.

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune and a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. He will again be a faculty member of the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau, to be held November 5 - 6, 2004 in Southern California.)

Related Links:
Trent Nelson's member page

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