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|| News Item: Posted 2000-10-31

An American Werewolf in Oz
By Sam Mircovich, Reuters

Photo by John Pryke

Photo by John Pryke
I thought it was a joke. Reuters photog Mike Blake off-handedly mentioned I should talk to my new boss Gary Hershorn now that the NBA Finals were over. I was still picking glass out of my shoes from the rioting and drinking free NBA booze. Being the paranoid guy that I am, I thought I had screwed up big-time. I didn't look forward to the call.

But Gary surprised me by asking if I would be interested in shooting the Olympics in Sydney. HAHA I thought another gag at my expense. But he was serious. The first words out of my moth were "How much is it gonna cost me/" See I'm a kind of a cheap guy when it comes to travelling.

Gary said my favorite word, "FREE." Well hell, count me in. Working 18-hour days and sleeping in a freezing room on a cot two sizes too small are two of my favorite things.

Keep in mind I had never had the desire to travel abroad in my 41 years of existence. So I had a lot to get done in the 2 months before the games. Would I get a passports before the IRS found out I was leaving the country (I DID). Would I have to share a room with a smelly old guy who talks in his sleep about Stickley Furniture (I DID NOT) Just kidding Ray.

Reuters editor Gary Cameron and Houston stringer Adrees Latif were also assigned to the games. They flew into town, and after a late shift shooting the Emmy Awards we bailed. (MY DARK SECRET IS OUT - I HAVE TO SHOOT HOLLYWOOD EVENTS - I'm so ashamed) The flight was 15 hours of constant daylight. I felt like a lab rat undergoing sleep deprivation.

We get through customs about 9pm and meet up with Washington desker Herman Beals and promptly jump on a bus driven by a local farmer who had never been to the big city. We get lost on the way to the media village. We make a dangerous U-turn on a busy narrow road, driving over the center divider. Welcome to Australia.

The housing at the media village was a compound of small doublewide-type trailer homes, with 6 bedrooms, three baths and a common kitchen area. If you got up early enough, you could have a cigarette and coffee in the morning and almost expect a tornado to wipe out the complex. Canadian staffer Andy Clark and I were waiting for it to happen.

The village also provided 24-hour food and bar (the most popular spot) as well as laundry facilities, a sparse fitness center, shops, medical and a small zoo. The local pest, the kangaroo, shared the penned area with some wallaby's and local birds.

Daylight comes and we mosey out for breakfast and then the hassles of credentialing. Everyone is very friendly. My normal grumpy, sullen demeanor is being sandblasted away. How can you not be pleasant when dozens of volunteers in psychedelic clothing are greeting you every day with a "Good Morning" or 'No Worries Mate.'? My face cracked and I found my smile.

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters
We get to the Main Press Center and check into the Reuters offices. Here's where it gets intimidating. Photographers from all over the world have been flown in to cover the games. Names I knew only from captions on the Internet. Guys and gals that have been covering war and pestilence and political dramas in third world nations are here. Along with most of the London operation including our new head honcho Steve Crisp. How in the hell am I gonna remember all these names, I have trouble remembering my mother's birthday (NO LIE - ASK HER!)

Luckily everyone has their name printed in 20-point type hanging round their neck. Big help. Soon I was rolling off their names without even grabbing that sideways glance. Alexander Demianchuk Lazlo Balough, Kai Pffafenbach, Ruben Sprich, Nigel Small, Mariana Bazo, Ali Jareki, Goran Tomasevic, Kimimasa Mayama, David Viggers, Tom Szlukovenyi. More than 60 photographers and editors, plus technical people staffed the games, plus dozens more on the print and graphics side. It was like a mini-United Nations.

I had been brought to the games to cover two American sports. Baseball was my main gig. I would back up Adrees (NOT ANDRES) in shooting basketball. Well I guess covering 100 games a year has paid off.

The task was easy but difficult at the same time. Baseball is a game of patience and attention. Get distracted and you miss the key play. Get bored and it can be as frustrating as shooting SOFTBALL! (More on that later). But if there was no action, as in a no - hitter, then where would the "special moments" come from and would my editors understand that sometimes dull pictures are sometimes all you get.

At the photographers meeting later in the day, Gary Hershorn encouraged up to think beyond the daily sports coverage model. We were free to get artsy, to use pans, blurs, and the forbidden zoom shot to offer our clients a different look at the games. We were provided with local cell phones for communication, and wireless LAN cards for the delivery of pictures.

Minister of Transportation Larry Rubenstein had organized our own rides to and from the distant venues, employing locals to drive us when necessary. Hershorn and AsiaĆ­s news pictures editor Tom Szlukovenyi, a really good guy who never had a bad word to say to anyone, handled daily assignments. Or maybe I just didn't piss him off enough. The overall content of pictures fell into the lap of the news editor for pictures Europe-Middle East-Africa David Viggers. Both he and Szlukovenyi would check up on me throughout the games asking if I was having fun. How could I not have fun? This was going to be a challenge I had hoped for most of my career.

The photos were to be transmitted using Reuters proprietary software called Wavelan. Basically, the program converts raw tiff files into high-quality JPEG's, transits them wireless to an antenna installed at each venue, then routed through regular ISDN lines to our office in the MPC. It then copies the raw tiff file onto my hard drive for archiving.

Photo by Greg Fiume

Photo by Greg Fiume
Using Reuters Picture Stream software in the office, the photos automatically dropped into their designated windows in one of four editing stations. The editor makes his selects and copy drops them to an adjacent machine, where it was Photoshopped, then passed on to be captioned, then sent to the MED desk for its final routing. Pretty impressive setup.

The next day was spent checking out my venue, the baseball stadium in Olympic Park. I lucked out because the stadium was a five-minute walk from the MPC. It was a nice ballpark with a definite American feel. When I got there they were testing out the goofy sound effects for foul balls, a raucous Aussie version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and rock and roll between innings. Though I don't think we need to hear all the lyrics to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Something about "giving head" doesn't quite ring with what you hear at Dodger Stadium.

The stadium seated about 18,000 and would be used for modern pentathlon after baseball finished. The venue press manager Joe Reeves and photo manager Greg Fiume were regular, great guys and very helpful. They certainly would prove invaluable later in my Olympic experience.

A second baseball venue was located about 30 minutes away in Blacktown, sharing the site with the softball stadium. (There's that ugly word again) The drive time proved to be valuable for catching up on sleep. I thank the lord for Reuters Minister of Transportation, Larry Rubenstein, for having drivers ready for those long hauls out of town. Photo manager Max Becherer, another good man with a smiley face, ran that venue.

The day of opening ceremonies arrives and I have been assigned to help Photoshop the transmissions. Wow, the pictures started dropping in minutes after the events started to unfold on TV. I saw some cool pics from the guys out there and were really getting into the job, being part of a large collaborative effort. Until the Parade of Athletes began, then I began to go crazy.

(Cue the ominous music) Man, I wanted to kill myself. As a wire service and part of the IOPP pool, Reuters were responsible for moving pictures of every country's team and flag bearer that walked into Olympic Stadium. Not so bad you might think. Just because a team enters the stadium and you make a snap, it doesn't mean it's a good picture. But it has to be moved onto the wire because clients in Trinidad Tobago or some other far off nation wants to see their team. It wasn't the photographer's fault; they were just doing their job as best they could.

After the first 20 countries, I searched within the photo for an interesting crop to emphasize pattern or some detail, just so I wouldn't go crazy. But we hung tough as a team and got through the monotony until Australia's Kathy Freeman lit that torch.

In case you didn't know, the torch got stalled after being lit by radio frequencies used in TV remote cameras. TAKE THAT, TV goons! The whole world was watching your enormous faux pas. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Day 2 arrives and off to the baseball stadium. I meet AP's Mark Duncan and Eric Gay, the competition. (More ominous music) They were transmitting through analog lines much in the same way as they do at home, getting a couple of early pictures out and sending again at the end of the game.

The baseball games, for the most part, were uneventful. The Cuba-USA game in the preliminary rounds featured some rough play, causing USA coach Tommy Lasorda to storm the field to argue with the umpires. It was the first time in the whole games I had seenthe US team fired up. For the most part, they seemed to sleepwalk through the prelims, not getting as fired up as the other seven teams. Sure they won most of their prelims (Ok I admit I forgot their record); Cuba just went the extra mile and played as if they wanted the gold more. They were the defending gold medal team after all. The US lost that match 6-1.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
Lo and behold the US team meets Cuba again for the gold medal game. I was ready and hoped to get a good jubo shot of the game winner, pitcher Ben Sheets. I am on him as the final pitch is thrown, not too tight, hoping for the reaction. The batter flies out to left field, drawing Sheets attention. Sheets turns, and as the catch is made, drops to his knees and raises his arms.

Great picture huh. Yeah, if I was in the third base well. But being a creature of habit, I was in the first base well. I got a great picture of his back though. Luckily we did have a guy on third base.

Things got worse from there. The usher who had been no problem throughout the preliminaries took it upon himself to stand in front of our well with his little camera as the team poured onto the field to celebrate. An amateur photographer blocked almost everyone in our well at the key moment. I was screaming at this guy's back, trying to get him out of the way. He couldn't hear me in the roar of the crowd. I was furious. I picked up my water bottle and nailed him in the leg. I've never thrown so accurately; maybe I should have tried out for the team. He turned around and glared at me as I motioned for him to get out of the way. Finally he got the hint and moved away, but it was too late. I had to settle for the scraps of the jubo.

During the break between the game and the medal ceremony I bent photo manager Greg Fiume's ear about the incident. I was still very angry that some goofball with a camera could ruin this Olympic moment. I have to apologize to Greg again for my anger. He went over to the usher and chewed him out royally.

As I took my position for the medal ceremony, the same usher was standing down the foul line next to some policemen. We made eye contact, but since the cops were there, I didn't want to get into it with him. He knew who I was. All said to him was "I'm not going to say a word," with the same rising anger in my voice. OK just deal with it and finish the job.

Sometimes shit happens, even at the Olympics.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
To mix things up, I was assigned to a few days of softball coverage as well. What the hell is softball? It something you play after work with your buddies as you kill a few six packs, right? Wrong! I'm sorry but with all due respect to fellow Sports Shooter writer Rod Mar (who detailed his adventures at the softball World Series); softball is the miniature golf of baseball.

What the hell is up with the field? It's shorter, and what is normally foul territory is fair. The pitcher's circle? If the pitcher steps out of it you can steal on her, but if she steps back in you have to go back? What the hell is that?

Well, despite the freaky rules, I tried to make the best of it. Many thanks to local Aussie shooter named Jacki who gave me the lowdown. I felt I was getting the knack of it by my second game.

That is until a day game with the US and Japanese teams. I spent most of the late afternoon looking for angles to exploit the nice light. By game's end, I realized I had shot too much and my editor would have a fit. Bright guy that I am, I decided to edit my take in the computer before transmitting.

Using Picture Stream, I started to edit, then changed my mind. Better to do it in-camera. But when the program asked if I wanted to format my card when I quit, I said yes without thinking. My take was gone. And it was not coming back.

Well chalk up another screw-up to the Olympic learning curve. In my efforts to make my editors' job easier I sacrificed all I had done that afternoon. I made a quick call to Hershorn to explain the situation and to get some guidance. I felt like I was making stupid mistakes. Gary was very helpful and assured me he wouldn't ship me Fed-EX back to LA. Luckily I had photos of both team's pitchers on another disk so I was covered, barely.

I got to do a few more softball games and was enjoying the help of venue photo manager Julie Bowyer. She always had a good word and a smile, despite my early uneasiness with the sport. Her "No worries, mate" got me through the day. Even when I was shivering through a 14-inning overtime win by China over the US that ended way past midnight.

In softball, if there is no winner after 7 innings, they spot you a runner at second base and play overtime until there is a winner. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? Even with a runner at second the game dragged on through the cold of the night. The sprinklers came on, dousing the outfielders. Yeah, very funny. Finally, China broke through, handing the US team another in a string of defeats.

I missed out on the gold medal game though. I was assigned to edit that day. I have to tell you that editing was the most fun I had during the whole event. Really. I got to pick pictures that would be zipped around the world and seen by millions. OHHH THE POWER! I got a lot of help of Reuters staffers Claro Cortez, and Bobby Yip. I got to suggest crops that fit my tastes and they showed me a thing or two about Photoshop, captioning accurately and working within a large system that churns out hundreds of pictures a day. These guys were the best and they put me at ease for what could have been an intimidating task.

When time permitted, I filled in on basketball coverage with Adrees. With baseball finished and the basketball medal rounds approaching, the action moved to the Superdome. The secret of the Superdome is that it housed the best food in Olympic Park, a media restaurant that rivaled the luxury suite food at Staples Center in LA. Not that Staples Center Luxury box food is that great, just better than what was available to the average guy. I wish I had found out about it sooner, having spent most of my time there eating strange gravy-laden foods, hot dogs that didn't look cooked, and of course the Big Mac.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
Hershorn suggested that I shoot an overhead position and I considered it a challenge to shoot it as tight as possible. The overhead photo position I chose was level with the rim, and very tight with a 300mm. COOL! It was going to be a hit or miss deal, I either nail a tight dunk or net action, or I crashed and burned on the spot.

But ugliness was to rear its head and try to ruin my idyllic Olympic experience. For the women's Bronze medal game between Australia and Brazil, rowdy Aussie team members took over the photo tribune seating. I had left my position briefly and returned to find Aussie team members in my spot. They had physically removed my equipment and removed the sticker that had designated it a photo position.

This problem was common in the basketball games, and I had had lengthy talks with photo venue manager Jimmy Pozarik. I implored him to police the area so photographers wouldn't have to fight with belligerent athletes who felt they could go where they pleased. It put some native Aussie ushers in an uncomfortable position, but if they didn't start enforcing the rules then what could we expect from gold medal games?

The game was starting and rather than argue with the athletes I gathered my cameras and went to the other side of the court. During a time-out I went back to retrieve my computer case, and was goaded into an argument with two guys who clearly wanted to fight me. UGLY UGLY. I had to be the professional, and just walked away, but later I took it out on a couple of local Aussie Reuters guys. Sorry, I was just pissed.

The US men's team had a scare in their semi-final match against Lithuania. I wanted the US to lose that one. That was the best game in the whole tournament. Despite their swagger and denial that they might have lost the game, it came down to a rushed three point shot by a Lithuanian player. What could have been a big story turned into a semi-big story.

When they won their gold medal game against France, the US team's celebration was without heart. There was little drama and the jubo was low key. When they finally got hold of some American flags they just walked off the court with them. Haven't they been watching the TV coverage for tips on the proper way to celebrate an Olympic victory?

To me the Olympics are about creating new heroes, not glorifying those who are successful. A million- dollar player in the NBA, or any other pro sport, doesn't need and probably doesn't deserve the adulation that comes with winning a gold medal. Save that for the unheralded, save it for the athletes that can appreciate it and for the country that needs a hero.

The only other problem I had encountered was losing my coveted pool photo vest. One night, I got finished early and headed back to the media village. Time to kill, what would I do? I headed to the bar.

I had arrived in Sydney with the mindset that heavy drinking and working 18-hour days don't mix. And for the first 10 days of the games I had only consumed 2 beers. (I'm a scotch drinker anyway). So with time to kill I ordered a double, then a second. By this time the rest of our team was arriving, and as a habit would congregate in the bar area for a late meal and more beer. I finished my fifth double it was 3 am and I had to be up at 6am to edit inside the MPC.

So I drag myself to the bus, and go through the security checkpoint at the MPC. I spent the day picking pictures, having shrugged off a hangover with lots of vitamin C. I thought things were going a bit too well, and didn't realize until I packed up to leave that my vest was missing. I didn't wear it into the office, I had carried it. It wasn't there. I felt like I had "DEAD MEAT" stamped on my forehead!

Without that vest I was dead in the water, I wouldn't be able to do my job. I was panicking, and retraced my steps in the MPC. The only place I could have lost it was at the security checkpoint, failing to pick it up at the other end of the x-ray machine. No one there knew anything about the vest. DUH, the morning shift was gone. I filed a missing item report and headed home.

I was able to borrow the vest of editor John Pryke, which promptly got drenched in the rain-delayed semi- final game between the US and Japan. I'm not sure it ever dried out, it rained so hard.

Word got to me that Olympic Photo Chief Gary Kemper and his formidable assistant Joe Traver had my missing vest. Or at least the number. I hadn't thought of checking in to the place that I got the vest. Kemper explained to me that they had to give away my vest to a late arrival, but they had the number. All they had had left was an extra- large vest (probably their own, what a sacrifice) to replace it. I was grateful for the help, and vowed not to be in that position again.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
Well my Olympic experience was coming to an end. Reuters had a closing ceremony party at one of the bars in the MPC, and everyone got to sample the crocodile tail appetizer. A few drinks later and the sportswriters were singing Beatles tunes, badly. The happy snaps popped and everyone seemed to have a good time cutting loose after three weeks of hard labor. Kemper, Traver and Fuime cornered me and jokingly shouted in unison, "Sam, where's your vest!" HA VERY FUNNY.

I lost five pounds in the three weeks I was there. Probably from lugging a 40 pound stealth bag all over the place, and eating once a day. There was no time to hit the gym, and the equipment provided at the media village was not what I expected. Six aerobic machines and two poorly designed weight stations that probably would have broken my arms.

I regret not taking time off afterwards to see more of the country. I got one day in Sydney, did the quickie tour and flew out the next evening. But I got to learn in an environment of cooperation and skill that I can apply to my day to day job. I think I did a good job, though things didn't always go as smoothly as I had hoped. But I met some great people, some who returned home to find their countries in turmoil. Goran Tomasevic arrived home in Belgrade to cover the overthrow of Milosevic. Jim Hollander returned to Israel in time for more troubles with the Palestinians. Sadly, the Olympic spirit can't change the world outside its two-week time frame.

(Sam Mircovich, a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter, is a contract photographer for Reuters News Pictures based in Southern California.)

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