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Bill Frakes on His Favorite Sports Photography Moment

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Bill Frakes, author of Sports Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots, shares his favorite sports photography moment from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
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Picking one moment, one image, from the millions I have exposed during my career is a virtually impossible task. Likewise, selecting one moment from the thousands of great scenes I have been blessed to witness during my career is incredibly hard.

That said, on August 8, 1992 I was privileged to cover quite possibly the greatest day of track and field ever, at my first Olympics for Sports Illustrated, in the fabulous ancient city of Barcelona, when Carl Lewis ran the then fastest 100 meters in history to anchor a runaway world record by the U.S. 4 x100 meter relay team.

It was a hot humid night on Montjuïch in the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, built in 1927 and reborn as the Barcelona Olympic Stadium. 65,000 screaming fans filled the seats. A crowd estimated at more than one billion watched on television sets around the world.

The day brought an early start for me. I left my hotel room in the center of the city at 5:00 a.m. with a case of gear and began the slow journey across town on the subway system. After exiting the train I climbed a long flight of stairs and then began a half-mile walk  to the press center where I picked up five 60-pound cases full of gear, loaded them onto a cart, and then made another mile walk up a fairly steep hill to the stadium.

I entered the virtually empty stadium. The finish line photo pit was fairly small. It had no reserved positions. Everything was done totally on a first come, first served basis. A few photographers had marked spots with tape, but nothing was officially assigned. This is where hard work and dedication pay off. If you work harder, you get a better spot. 

I was alone in the finish line pit for the first hour. In 1992 not many photographers used multiple remote cameras for track and field. (In 2012 the finish line area was covered with remotes, and it’s one of the most hotly contested positions for space, but I digress.)

My assistant arrived with some much needed espresso and delicious pastry around 6:30 a.m. Any Olympics brings very long hours. In Barcelona I rarely managed more than two hours per night of sleep. There was so much going on I simply couldn’t sleep.

By 7:00 a.m. we had 10 remote cameras in place. I used C clamps to hook some of them to the rails in front of the photo pit. A few more were mounted with magic arms. And one very special remote was mounted on a floor plate. That camera, an F3 fitted with a 180mm f2.8 Nikkor lens, would be slipped into place minutes before the 4 x100 gun went off.

I wired all of the remotes together using zip wire, camera connectors, and a foot switch. I needed to be able to trip all of the remotes at exactly the right moment. (Pocket Wizards weren’t in the picture for us then either. They make the process much easier.) The film cameras we were using ran at six frames per second, much slower than the digital cameras we use today. The photographs were made on film with far less latitude.

I could access the cameras in the photo pit right up until race time, making f stop and shutter speed adjustments, changing to faster film if needed. But the camera on the plate, once it was in position, that was it: impossible to change. I had been carefully recording the intensity of the light all week. I had a very good idea what the light would be. I knew what lens I’d need to cover the various lanes, and how much depth of field I would need to achieve the look I wanted.

Back to that morning. It was already brutally hot. No relief from the Spanish sun. There wouldn’t be all day. I crawled under the main television camera platform and settled in to wait for the races to start.

When I am covering Track and Field there is always something to do. I am not there to cover one heat of one event. On August 8th I shot 12 events, plus constantly scanned the crowd for salient feature images that conveyed the atmosphere of the event.

Every race is important. Every race can result in a major story. Every race demands my complete concentration and effort.

The 100 meter race is the highest profile race in major track and field championships, at least in the USA. Personally I like all of the races; each has its own dynamic, and each can result in wonderful competition, which gives all of us the chance to make incredible images.

The 4 x 100 is dramatic, intense, fun very photogenic most of the time. Running fast is not the only important part of the process—getting the baton around the track without dropping it is much harder than it looks. The runner receiving the baton puts his hand back and starts moving. The runner handing off the stick slaps it into the receiver’s hand while running at full speed. A bunch of things can easily go wrong in the exchange. So when it all goes well and the times are good, the celebrations are amazing.

The Cuban team of Andres Simon, Joel Lamela, Joel Isasi and Jorge Aguilera ran fast—faster than the previous world record for the event. Still, they finished with a Bronze medal.

The Nigerian team of Oluyemi Kayode, Chidi Imoh, Olapade Adeniken and Davidson Ezinwa ran even faster. They finished in 37.98, well under the existing world record. They earned a silver medal for their amazing efforts.

The U.S. team with Michael Marsh running lead off handed to Leroy Burrell, who passed the baton to Dennis Mitchell. Mitchell handed the baton to an already running Carl Lewis. Mitchell screamed “GO! GO!” as Lewis pulled away from the field, blazing to 8.85 final leg—the fastest 100 meters ever run by a human at the time.  

As Carl raced across the finish line, both arms raised in a victory salute, I tracked him with a Nikkor 300mm f 2.0 lens. It is a nice photograph, but ultimately it proved to be too tight.

After the race I scrambled to pull all of the film from the cameras. I had more work to do, other things to shoot, and no time to mess around thinking about what had just happened. I calculated the processing necessary and marked it on the individual rolls with a permanent marker. Then I put the exposed, labeled rolls into a shipping bag and handed them, with complete trust, to a film courier who took everyone’s film back to the main press center for distribution to the various agencies and publications.

After we finished the day’s events we reversed the program and took down all of the remote cameras, repacked the bags, and began an exhausted walk back down the hill, through a swaying, dancing, singing crowd to our Barcelona office. The people were celebrating athletics and life. It was magic.

Sports Illustrated had its own color lab in the press center in Barcelona. I have to admit I was pretty nervous waiting for that film to come out of the processor.  

I stood back against the wall of the office watching my boss at Sports Illustrated, Heinz Kluetmeier, go through the frames, incredibly slowly I thought,  passing over frame after frame until a slow smile slow spread over his face.  

He prepared a slide show for the magazine’s editors. They selected my image to run across two pages.  

Click to see larger image.

I can’t emphasize enough how important having a mentor and boss like Heinz was. He invited me to the Olympics. He helped me prepare before we left the U.S., making sure I had all kinds of exotic equipment packed, waiting for just the right moment to use it. Early in the games, on the first day of track and field, I was feeling the pressure of working for arguably the world’s best sports publication. I was dealing with an experienced and aggressive international press corps. I was struggling to keep everything in the proper place and order—since each race demands different coverage, the concerns are massive. Heinz stopped by the finish line on his way to the infield. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Relax. Nobody does this better than you. It will be fine.”  

I got lucky with the precise lane assignments, I got lucky with the light, I got lucky with the runner’s reaction, and I got lucky that I was working for Heinz. I was lucky that I had good support, and that we had talked this all through weeks in advance.

But the most important thing I got lucky with was that for my entire life my Mom taught me how to work and prepare so when the opportunities presented themselves, I was ready to capitalize. And in this case I did.

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