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|| News Item: Posted 2001-01-23

We Got Mail
Letters to Sports Shooter

By Robert Hanashiro

Eco Challenge = Eco Farce. The flip slide to covering the Eco Challenge.

It was a fine report tabled to your readers Corey Rich and Reed Hoffman and assorted others about the Eco-Challenge. Now I would like to inform your readers of what it was really like for the WORKING International media covering the 2000 Eco-challenge. It isn't a groan and gripe session, it's all fact although some might read it as the other way but remember the world exists elsewhere other than in the US of A.

Photo by
For the Quokka and Arkhaven photographers I admired their work greatly. It's what you would expect from someone working for companies who had paid or otherwise supposed to have been there at the request of the event organizers, but for the working international media and this involved photographers and journalists from Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, UK, China, Holland, Spain, France, Russia and Guatemala there where two sides to the story.

On one side where the paid photographers who had unlimited access to helicopters, vehicles, accommodation, food and the all important water - on the other side was the working press who had none of this.

Many of the international press where freelancers who had paid big dollars to travel there on spec for the event listed as a major international sporting event. Whereas in reality it has denigrated into nothing more than a reality based television show run by CBS's golden boy of the moment, Mark Burnett and new host broadcaster USA Network. Corey talks about this being a great media event, the truth was sadly far from this.

All was fine we thought prior to the start of the event, many of us had been INVITED to attend, we were promised by the ever eager media minders that we would get great shots and if we needed more then Archaven would supply. The bottom fell out of those promises right from the start of the race.

In boats loaded up with international media we were again informed that we could get those great shots of the start and the first sailing leg but again in reality, which nearly caused a mutiny, we were all stuck one and a half kilometers away from the start. They kept us back - just so the TV director wouldn't get non -competitors in the shot. The local Malaysian media were understandably furious after all their government had paid nearly 3 million US dollars for the rights to host the event and now they couldn't even shoot the start.

The day got worse as it became known that the media minders where under instructions from the TV people not to let the international media get any closer than 1km to the last boat at the back of the 72 strong field. (all the time the Q and A people had the boats and could go where ever they wanted). And so on to the first island landing, where I and others overheard an irate TV producer shouting into his intercom that no media were allowed onto the beach so that we didn't ruin his shot, well we did - so there.

You could imagine the scene when we were assembled later back at the media center in Semporna, that night. The few US based journalists there weren't saying anything but the rest of us let it rip - only to be informed in no uncertain terms that the TV people didn't want us here and many considered us beneath dog shit in the social standings of the event. And more importantly as far as the media minders were concerned they would only do as they were told by the TV people.

We let it be known that US TV marketing people and students masquerading as media minders knew nothing about newspapers, editors, deadlines or shots. The unique nature of this event and its location meant for many of the international media we were totally reliant on the organizers for everything, it was far worse for the freelancers.

Because of the remoteness and very real dangers associated with the huge tracts of the Borneo rain forest jungle locations controlled by the organizers they knew we were all totally dependent on them for all our transport, food, water and accommodation. Some shooters packed up and left after the day one fiasco. Wire service shooters found better things to shoot, magazine journos took off to shoot trains and orangatangs, but for the workers amongst us we just had to get on with it and proceeded to fight the organizers at every step of the way.

Entire sections of the race were cut off from us, yet the many hundreds of television staff and Q&A staffers where given all access passes. They had their own vehicles assigned to them permanently but where under strict orders not to lend any assistance to any members of the international media, they had rooms and helicopters flights when and whenever they needed it. (Luckily Corey and his mates helped us out on odd occasions).

What didn't happen was the promised shots from Arkhaven - only a small number of the thousands shot on NEF files where ever made available to the international media through the ECO-Challenge web site.

This and the power of TV over the US based journos and photographers was sharply brought into focus when on the third day there was a serious accident to one of the competitors. Whilst the media were kept at checkpoints miles from the action. several US photographers where given access to the site. Great pictures were bragged about later at the media center but when the media minders and Archaven photographers where asked for the promised access to the images the reply was a shocking " NO images will be given out as they are all part of the show."

Later it appears a short meeting was held between the media minders and the US journos where it was agreed upon that in the interests of the show no information about the accident would be released. Several European journos left in disgust, mutterings of journalistic integrity where heard all over the race course.

Media minders where then hurriedly dispatched to intercept and censor any photographers shooting accidents and non race activities.

I was accorded the distinction of having two assigned because they thought I was trouble.

At this point many of the remaining photographers where playing in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse with their media minders (shades of Russia and China). We were disappearing into the jungle for days on end, nobody knew where we were - no-one could have helped us if we had ever gotten into trouble (a very real fact of life in the Borneo jungle where you are literally part of the food chain).

For the working press to get the action shots we had to literally sneak into an event we had all been cordially invited to attend. The organizers used tricks like NO Food, No Transport ( as the Q&A staffers drove past) No accommodation (as 300 TV personal sat down to lavish four course meals and slept on dormitory bunks specially built for them), they forced us to sleep on helicopter landing pads in amongst fuel cans and when these tactics didn't work they simply used the Malaysian Police to stop us getting access to competitors.

The Malaysian media were even forced away from talking with their own teams. Later the Malaysian journos discovered the eco-challenge organizers trying to charge competitors and media alike for water - which had all been sponsored to the event and was supposed to have been supplied to all free of charge.

For a supposedly international media event as such the eco-challenge sucked - things didn't get any better even when after discussions about the types of articles and pictures that where going to be printed the next day concerning what was going on in the jungle reached the ears of those in charge and they allowed some relaxation in the rules .

The cat and mouse games continued, the nice but knobbled and highly over stressed media transportation staff tried their best to accommodate some photographers requests. But when a fatality involving a local villager occurred, once again the TV based media censorship machine swung into force - we were informed that the locals had requested that no media be allowed into a village until lunch time out of respect for the dead birds nest gatherer family.

Upon arriving at the village later that day we found that the request was bogus, all TV and Q & A staffers were there wandering about free and easy and had been all day. Also local merchants where annoyed that we hadn't been around so that they could flog their over priced wares at us.

The price for attending the Eco-Challenge went up from 1999. Then it cost the competitors $USD5000 per team to race. Now it costs $USD12,000! In 1999 when they eventually finished this grueling race they received a bottle of champagne, in 2000 all they got was a lukewarm can of Tiger beer.

Call me naive but I had visions of the Eco-Challenge as a great media event, one where everyone got their shots easily and there were no big fights between shooters and TV.

(It used to be when Discovery Channel managed the media access and luckily the French Run Raid series and Kiwi Southern Traverse races are still accessible to media.

The sad fact is that it is now just another reality-based TV show, stage managed as much as a WWF wrestling match, where competitors pay large sums of money just to be unpaid extras in a Mark Burnett production. Many competitors acknowledged this and scolded me for being so naive, in fact a lot of the TV staff shooting the "race" had simply just moved locations from the Survivor series which had been filmed recently on the other side of the island.

All these problems could have been easily solved if the media staff for the Eco-Challenge had sat down on day one with working media photographers and planned the shot access. We could have all taken our shots easily and not gotten in the way of their precious TV cameras. But nobody thought of asking the working media as TV rules the race now and as such the race is dead as far as it being billed as a great media event.

Just to rub it in one more time that they didn't want the international media there - at the closing ceremony in Kota Kinabalu later, a video presentation was made to invited quests, sponsors, race competitors and media in which the organizers belatedly thanked the international media for their help , sadly only happy snaps of all the US based media were shown - opp's did some one forget to tell them that the rest of the international world was there too.

John Cosgrove
Assistant Picture Editor
Straits Times Newspaper

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