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|| News Item: Posted 2000-11-21

The "Other" Olympics
By David G. McIntyre, Black Star

My trip to Sydney, Australia to cover the 11th Paralympic Games (October 18-29, 2000) actually started in 1993, when I saw a photo by David Eulitt of the Topeka Capital Journal from his Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award winning story "Willing and Able," that he shot in 1992 at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

I saw the photo on the cover of the contests brochure in 1993 on the wall of the newspaper I was working at (The Phoenix Gazette in Phoenix, AZ) and filed this image in the back of my mind. I usually covered sports quite regularly for the newspaper, and like all young photographers was hoping at a chance to work for Sports Illustrated one day. But I remember something that I read about Walter Iooss of SI around 1987. He said in relation to all the photographers covering sporting events these days: "If everybody else is there, find someplace else to be."

Photo by David G. McIntyre/Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/Black Star
I have carried that saying with me most of the time, granted that I did like to be at the high profile things too. But throughout my photojournalism career, I have always wound up with much better photos when I cover the lesser-known, and less media crowded events.

Now, more back to the point.

I moved from Phoenix, and have lived in Hong Kong now for six years, and travel around Asia and mostly to China covering news and business along with corporate work for the Black Star agency in New York. I cover very little sports, so when I need to use really long glass (400mm and 600mm) I am able to borrow it from Canon.

After the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Hong Kong had a team of Paralympian athletes that returned also from Atlanta a few weeks after the regular Olympics were finished. They had just competed in the 10th Paralympic Games, and brought home 5 gold medals (they won a total of 15 medals at the games) and there was a photo and a small story about their success in the local newspaper.

Hong Kong won their first-ever gold (and only) medal in the regular Olympic games in women's windsurfing, and a big deal was made. But I was awakened more when I saw that they excelled very well in the Paralympic games for disabled athletes. Again I filed this in my mind, and recalled the story by David Eulitt of the Topeka paper again.

Fast forward to February 2000. I was in the offices of Asiaweek magazine (a 126,000 regional news weekly covering Asia that is owned by Time/Warner) and we were talking about the coverage of the Olympic games in Sydney and about possibly covering it from the Asia perspective. I started to look into covering the games, and made a few phone calls in Hong Kong and found out that it was already too late to apply for credentials to cover the games, and that Hong Kong only was allotted 6 media passes anyway. I told the editor a few days later, and then we just said so much for that and said we'll just depend on the wires,

I went to the Olympics web site, and saw the banner for the Paralympics. It clicked that this is what I would really want to do, and given Hong Kong's past success in 1996,I figured I would go do a story about the Asian athletes. May of the normal Olympians and Western countries athletes get much press, but not so the Asian Paralympians. I went to the editor and mentioned the story idea to him, and he said sure. I went from there.

Applying is through the organizing committee of the host country, and not through the individual countries like the regular games. I started the process in February, and everything went smoothly (from accreditation, media lodging, and information updates about the games progressing), and I was becoming excited about covering them.

Well, not much to do then except to show up in Sydney and cover the games. Covering Asian athletes, I had the task of figuring out how I should cover these games in order to represent many countries from the region. I had to compile information of every country's entries, and figure out a schedule to cover them during the twelve-days of competition. In the end, there wound up being over 4,000 athletes from 121 countries in 20 various sports.

As most of the events take place at many of the same venues of the regular games, so I spent a lot of my time at the Sydney Olympic Park in Homebush Bay (in what I call a Disneyland for sports). My accommodation was at the Hotel Ibis, located in the center of the Olympic Park, so I didn't have to worry much about transportation everyday just to get there.

Well the Opening Ceremonies on Wednesday evening (October 18th) wound up being a sell-out event that had a wonderful crowd interaction, I was assigned a seat that overlooked everything from the front row of the top-level of the Olympic Stadium, and was actually a great place to shoot the athletes marching in, the torch lighting and a wide shot of the fireworks. All of the fans were in a good mood, and good photos were abundant.

The next morning would be the actual competition beginning of the games, and I was very anxious to get on with them. As I told some friends before I left for the games: "I am going to cover the athletes with less fame, but bigger hearts."

I covered every kind of sports they had, for athletes that had disabilities ranging from missing arms and legs, blindness, intellectual-disabilities (all the politicians of the world were busy), cerebral palsy and paralysis. They compete in wheel chairs, on artificial limbs, or any other way possible in sports ranging from Judo, wheel chair rugby and basketball, sitting volley ball, swimming, archery fencing and power lifting.

The locals in Sydney and around Australia tuned in to the television for the opening ceremonies, and the ratings blew out of the water. The network that carried them, had to increase their coverage for the rest of the games due to the unexpected success of people wanting to watch the games. (Also note that the Australian TV network that had the contract for the regular Olympics decided not to keep the carryover rights for the Paralympics, and thus the Government owned network stepped in).

Australia is a sporting culture, but for the Olympics many people couldn't afford to attend the games and for the Paralympics they were very keen to see what these games were all about. The organizers wound up having a day pass to watch the Paralympics for Aus$ 15 (US$ 8.00) that enabled you to see anything you wanted that day and have free public transportation to get spectators to and from.

Everyday wound up being pretty well packed at the Olympic Park, as during the week many schools brought students to see the games. Everyday I had to hear the "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Oy, Oy, Oy" coming from the mouths of thousands of little kids that shouted it at almost anything that moved. But the games wound up drawing over 1.1 million spectators. Almost every event each day was packed, regardless of what countries were competing.

From the first day of competition, people were almost brought to tears seeing how these remarkable athletes were able to compete with such skill with the disabilities they had, and yet the spectators were saying that they would have trouble doing simpler things even though they still had normal use of their own bodies.

Things that stuck out in my mind from covering the games the most were:

Photo by David G. McIntyre/Black Star

Photo by David G. McIntyre/Black Star
- Seeing two high jumpers from China each with only one leg compete for who would win either a Gold or Silver between them. They were both jumping at 1.84 meters, and had set a new World Record, but would not give up till one of them went just a little bit higher. In the end, one of them wound up clearing 1.87 meters, and the crowd went crazy.

- Watching swimmers with no arms be able to swim not only 50 meter races in all strokes, but all distances including 200 meters and up. Some of these men and women with no arms might be competing again someone with arms, and they could still out-swim them. (One person said that when they saw a swimmer disqualified for an illegal kick, they said the person was at least swimming.)

- The unbelievable amount of space and areas afforded photographers to cover the games. Being a greatly reduced amount of media compared to the regular games, it was easy to cover four events a day, and not have to get there 3 hours in advance to stake out a position.

- The Cambodian standing volleyball team. The country's only entrant in the games, the team consisted of 11 athletes who most had lost a leg to land mine accidents, and also had one guy playing with only one arm. However they were the favourites, even though they won only one match the whole time. Many people in the stands were rooting for the team.

- Seeing the tears of both victory and defeat in these games, from many athletes who train and compete just a hard as there Olympic cousins. Also just the pride they had in representing their countries.

- There positive reaction of the crowds in support of these athletes who don't want pity, but just know that they are out there giving their all and it is appreciated.

- The sharing of images back in the Kodak center at the Main Press Center (home of a cafeteria meal much like I had in elementary school), after getting their film back from processing. We sat around and talked and showed each other images not to brag about our shooting abilities, but about the things the athletes them selves were accomplishing.

- The friendliness of the thousands of volunteers the worked the games. I had a couple small problems myself, but they were so friendly and overall helpful that I couldn't stay mad about anything. The thing I really remained upset about was all the big moths that seemed to hang out at The Dome while I was covering either the wheel-chair rugby, or basketball. They seemed to attack all the time.

- Covering any event that involved a Japanese athlete. At judo, after the Japanese athlete won the Gold Medal and was walking off the mat, the Japanese press I think put more fear into him than his deposed opponent when they all ran to get photos of his jubilation. And, at track and field, in the photo-well near the finish line, where when a Japanese went by, it was like a lens shift in unison reminiscent of covering USC or Raiders games at the LA Coliseum.

- The team from Hong Kong from where I live, winning 8 Gold medals this time, and overall winning more medals from a team consisting of only 28 athletes. They had the 14-year old that won a Gold in Table Tennis, to a former fire fighter that won a gold in fencing. (I was the only accredited journalist from Hong Kong covering the games, outside of the Hong Kong teams official photographer brought to the games by them.)

- Last but definitely not least, Gary Kemper and the rest of the photo marshals. They were always very friendly and able to get everything for me I needed. The two that were the best for me was the guy at Archery, and the lady at the Dome. They always made sure we were taken care of, and made sure that we were able to cover the athlete(s) we needed.

So I must say that even though I was unable to cover the Olympics, I don't think I missed my calling. I made many new friends at the Paralympics, was able to make great photos in great light and well lit venues on Kodak film, and as mentioned earlier: "If everyone else is there, find someplace else to be."

Also, just be more inspired to get off my behind sometimes to do more exercise and not complain about trivial things in life.

(David G. McIntyre is a freelance photographer with Black Star who has been based in Hong Kong since January 1995. He seems to spend more time in China than even President Jiang Zemin does.)

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