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|| News Item: Posted 2008-09-04

No Credential? No Problem.
There are other ways to cover an Olympic Games.

By Tom Theobald

Photo by Tom Theobald

Photo by Tom Theobald

Rhythmic gymnast Anna Bessonova of Ukraine split leaps to re-catch hoop on way to winning bronze in the Individual All-Around final at 2008 Beijing Olympics.
You haven't received an Olympic EP or EPs photo credential in your life? There are other ways to cover an Olympic Games, read on mates...

For about 10-years now, I follow one of the smaller Olympic gymnastic sports called rhythmic gymnastics. Barely anyone knows of this sport in the west and yet it is one of the most beautiful of all the artistic sports. Prior to 1998 and going back to 1981, I covered mostly the more mainstream artistic gymnastics (AG). AG is one of the glamour events NBC depends on each Olympic Games to bring in viewers. With rhythmic gymnastics (RG), barely 3,000 gymnasts train the sport across the USA and even the mainstream gymnastic media request very few of my RG images year to year.

Rhythmic gymnastics has been dominated by Eastern European countries (Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia) since becoming an Olympic sport in 1984. USA and Canada typically manage only one Olympic qualifier in RG...due to so few beginning gymnasts, who may have the body-type, doesn't know the sport exists at all.

I happen to be one of maybe fewer then 10 photographers that manage to make every European and World Championships. I try to make many of the grand prix and world cup events held worldwide as well. Within the sport most folks know of my work and from time to time the biggest sponsors request images. Yet when the Olympic Games, the big show comes every 4-years...and what Jim McKay once called "the summit of sport" EPs credential has been out of my reach for AG and RG venues.

The reason is that rhythmic gymnastics, like a lot of very small OG sports, is just too small a sport to receive an EP/EPs or writer credential. The one gymnastic magazine I work for...the publisher takes the one quota slot allowed for the more mainstream artistic gymnastics. Of the 80-90 EP slots in the USA quota...all the major media outlets take nearly all of them. There are no favors during the process and few allowances for the individuals that cover the smaller sports. It is every man for himself and just how it is.

You have to be very lucky or know the right people in life to get into the big show. USOC media office doesn't answer unknown's emails, when even asking for info on the application process for an EPs. The stock and wire service agencies, I work for from time to time, are too small and there is no chance there.

Flat out you need some kind of big wheel behind you and I haven't made the right connections or followed the correct career path in life to work my way up from smaller to bigger media outlets. I make no excuses, because I have dedicated 30-years to follow only a few Olympic artistic sports and not a wider spectrum of mainstream sports. You go with your passion in life and what means the most to your own being. It is the beauty of certain specific sports that mean the most to me and I won't compromise much. I'm sure there are others reading this that are similarly one-pointed about the sports they cover and have similar stories to tell about trying for Olympic Games credentials and images.

Your editor, after many years, maybe had good news finally for you. Or like me...the media you work for didn't have the clout with your NOC media office to get you into the quota of EP or EPs slots given to your country by the IOC. Given the above, in short my solution for years and years has been as follows-->A. Bring big glass and try figure out and buy good spectator seats... B. Get the allowed gear into your sport's venue, be polite and courteous to fan's around you (#1 rule, don't block their views). C. Look for opportunities for better photo positions, ie. if the Olympic volunteers are looser and movement to empty untaken seats at your venue is possible.

By writing this synopses of how I do the Games un-credentialed...maybe a few others can learn some things from these tips. Read on mates!

At all Olympic Games, I have attended, there have been no restrictions on any lenses or still camera bodies (only Beijing restricted monopods). The only out-and-out ban is on pro video gear. With NBC paying for the exclusive rights on that...only your little point & shoot still/video cam will make it into any Olympic venue for doing video. If you try to post any of that footage online, expect the consequences. (The IOC is protecting NBC's video rights and will likely find and come after you.)

Again, Numero UNO rule of working from tribune... Under no circumstances with or without an EP/EPs credential at any world-class sports event... you NEVER OBSTRUCT A FAN'S VIEW (can't say this enough times). Yes, you are entering with expensive pro gear, but expect no rights or privileges to any position (whether or not Olympic volunteers maybe lenient with you...or no matter if they are unobservant about where you are trying to position your camera or seat yourself). Simply you can never block a fan's view (meaning better not bring your lens hood) and is better to co-operate with Olympic volunteers always WHEN DIRECTLY ADDRESSED.

Photo by Tom Theobald

Photo by Tom Theobald

August 6, 1984; Los Angeles, California, USA; Artistic gymnastics star Mary Lou Retton of USA performs floor exercise on way to winning bronze in event final at 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
1984 Los Angeles
I began to bring gear in with me at LA 1984 (had Nikon 600mm from NPS, 2-Nikon F2 bodies and went for 1-day of event finals in AG and 1-day of track & field). It's hazy in my memory, how it went...but there wasn't near the security scrutiny back then. I remember moving around both Pauley Pavilion arena and LA Coliseum main perimeter traffic rings to find empty seats, picking my favorite positions with 300 & 600mm (NPS was out of 400mm loans for AG).

(1988-1996, fallow period professionally or missed several Games)

2000 Sydney
I have better memory of Sydney and the Pavilion-3 rhythmic gymnastics venue... Went with a Nikon D1 and 300mm + 1.4x tc and 70-200mm. Had a monopod and it was no problem entering with any of the gear at Sydney. I did have access to NPS, yet made no lens loans (they only cleaned my sensor and did a quick function check for me).

First 2-days of rhythmic, I found I could move without problem to any lower level empty seat and pick my favorite line of fire positions (all were elevated line positions). Taking your assigned seat rule was followed at Sydney...but the volunteers or security was mostly unobservant. So I followed a James Bond subtle approach in moving to empty seats with good positions in the tribune stands. Finally on the last day (someone must have noticed me earlier), Sydney security collared me at the git-go and took me to my assigned seat. Eventually fans began to depart early and yes, I began to move subtly to those empty seats again. YMMV. But still, am recommending to always respect a direct command of Olympic volunteers or security and then do the best you can given the gear you have to work with. See how a situation develops, respecting the fans sitting around you always as you analyze and figure out a plan.

When the must have medal image moment came...myself and 2-Japanese photogs...boldly went right for the pool video camera position. We moved in right behind that pool video cam without problem. I thought to myself...with 3min to go, they are not likely to kick me out of the arena nowŠand if they did at that point, it was the last day of the Games. The Japanese photogs and myself were not observed. Lesson here, sometimes just go for it!

2004 Athens
Athens was same, no problem entering the arena with 200mm+1.4x tc and 400mm/2.8 glass this time. Carried two Canon MKII bodies this time...but had no access to CPS at Athens. I didn't feel that great a need to move around at Athens. Because I had 400mm this time and the framing with 1.3x mag factor MKII bodies was a perfect focal length for rhythmic at Galatsi arena. One colleague, James Glader went with a 70-200mm and used the technique of befriending the Olympic volunteers/ushers in his seating section and they ok'd his access without problem to lower front row positions at Galatsi. This technique can work at any given venue, any given Games. Again, co-operate with your environment. By contrast, Olympic marathon or bicycle road should have a wider berth on what you can do on your own in those situations.

On the final day at assigned seat was actually right behind the mid-arena level, judges side, reserved row for EP press photographers. Few EP photogs took those seats and finally the volunteer/usher in my section let me take one of the seats too...who was it hurting? Without fans to my left and right, I was calmer and didn't have to worry. Only one Italian EP came finally to the row and ran 400mm same as me.

When the medals moment came, 400mm + 1.4x tc pulled in what I needed from there at arena mid-level. Then I saw the 3-medalists begin their 360-degree tour of the arena and the volunteer nearest me was about to let me move down to floor-level EP reserved section. But then her section boss said no way Jose!!! No worries, stay cool. I made myself small, took time to change to 70-200mm and blended in with the spectators at a place 3-rows up from floor-level. The three medalists came close enough and I banged away the frames I needed. Was a happy Olympic camper again:).

Photo by Dan Pickard

Photo by Dan Pickard

September 23, 2007; Patras, Greece; Photographer Tom Theobald of USA poses before images at an exhibition of his rhythmic gymnastics photographs during 2007 World Championships Patras.
2008 Beijing
I had a LOT of trepidation before BJ for the police state control, due to early word of a pro still gear at the venues. Had visa, seats, hotel res etc and almost didn't go at all. Zach Honig's blog helped me greatly to sort through a lot of things and prepare mentally ( But when it became clear from Zach, the Chinese were allowing pro still cameras into the was a go trip again. Then the question became 400mm again or not? In the end, I guessed that monopods would be banned and guessed correct. No monopod=take no 400mm/f2.8. So I handheld Canon 300mm and employed 1.4x tc as needed. Had only 1-camera body this time (1Ds MKIII).

Passing arena security was no factor again. On day-1 of my sport, rhythmic gymnastics...I had (amazingly) a front row railing seat. But then it became quickly clear at Beijing...that many Chinese people will typically NOT take their assigned seats at any event! If the rightful seat holder showed problem, folks just moved to another nearby empty seat. The Beijing Olympic average of 30% no-show factor at most venues helped in making seat moves. (Note: London 2012 maybe more like Sydney & Athens, re taking your assigned seat...but Beijing was not strict in this respect.)

So anyhow, following this technique of typical Chinese seat movement...I had front row seats from the same reverse angle corner on all days at BJUT arena. Only the gymnasts faced away toward the judges and that meant more backs in my frames. Still, I had zero complaints and zero excuses this time, re photo positions and good shooting lines.

Only at the very end was a small problem... I had few options on good medal images at the BJUT arena. Due to the raised mote-like wall around that arena, it prevented good shooting line positions, when the medals moments came. Just I didn't think well on my feet this time to get a good image of the 3-medalists. When the medalists did their 360-degree tour and came around the arena this time...unlike Sydney & Athens, it became very crowded in those moments (many Chinese fans rushed the front row railings).

So in Beijing, only I managed a series of typical distant victory images and nothing up close this time. Remember, you have to go with the flow and co-operate with your environment. Olympic situations do vary, venue to venue, Games to Games.

I think the conditions at London will mirror more like Sydney and Athens...your actual assigned seat number will matter more again...and you will have to be more careful and subtle about moving around. Will they ban monopods at London? I think they probably will. The Brits will not be so police state like controlling the general population like was in Beijing. But then London has had foiled bomb plots and security will be a factor again.

Usually I am able to manage a closing ceremony fireworks image (see Sydney & Athens fireworks pics)... At BJ, a colleague sent me an sms text that night to say, don't even try for the "Birds Nest" photo from any distance. The security buffer zone was 1-2 km or more and there was no chance of any wide-view photos of the Beijing closing ceremony. Around my neighborhood (or "hutong") there were young soldier sentries at every intersection. Still, I think that the opening and closing image of the fireworks will be possible at London 2012...

To summarize in general and projecting ahead. London will have many, many more foreign visitors and you can bet the venues will be very full in 2012. Keep cool and flexible again about what you can and can't do...regarding your tribune photo positions as an un-credentialed photog. Again, please mates, DO NOT BLOCK fans around you!

Again, regarding London 2012, I wouldn't raise expectations to what was possible at Beijing re seat moves to open seats for a better photo positions. Probably there won't be that many empty seats at London anyhow (they won't make Beijing's mistake in that respect). Plus the culture of queuing up and remaining orderly in Britain will be like Sydney 2000 and that may mean a bit more control from volunteers.

I don't see London limiting focal lengths on spectator still lenses. Pro video cams will remain banned and likely monopods also. With the DSLR new high-ASA sensitive sensors improving year to year...running with only one big zoom (say 200-400/f4.0 at like 500th/sec and 2000ASA). So that's the wave of the future.


(Tom Theobald is a freelance photographer based in San Diego. He travels the world several times a year mainly to cover artistic sports like gymnastics and figure skating. You can view his work at his personal website:

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Tom's member page

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