As with any planning to cover a big event the packing and photographic equipment organisation is always a large undertaking. This trip was no different but the type of clothing/gear required for work in extremely cold conditions also needed to be factored in to the planning process. Having never worked in snow or freezing conditions it was all a new experience for me. I packed as well as I could, had some sleep and left home at 3:34am Sydney time on March 1st starting the journey to Sochi for the 2014 Paralympic Games.
To say it was a long haul wouldn’t be lying. I arrived at my apartment in Sochi 10:29pm (Sydney time) on March 2nd which by my calculation (those alone hurt my head) clocked the trip at just under 43 hours door to door! The 8 hour stop-over in Moscow didn’t help.
It took a few days to get my head clear and find my bearings around the Sochi sites after such a long trip. We had two teams with a coastal cluster and mountain cluster with me joining Ian Walton, Ronald Martinez and Tom Pennington based in the mountains,
with Hannah Johnston, Dennis Grombkowski, Harry Engels and Justin Setterfield the photographers based on the coastal events, but also working along side us in the mountains. We all set ourselves to the task of working out the transport, working spaces, photo positions and event layouts so once the games started we could swing straight into gear and start shooting. As we shot preview images we soon realised it was going to be a hard task finding details of the event plans, which made planning coverage a touch difficult!
We did what we could and before we long the opening ceremony was upon us and I was on fireworks patrol outside the stadium for the opening with Harry Engels. The weather wasn’t looking kind as I headed out to find some photo position with Harry and were both really worried we would be spending a cold wet evening waiting and hoping for a big fireworks show. Working with limited information on where and when the fireworks would happen we based our plans on the Olympic opening ceremony display which started with a big quick burst as the ceremony started then concluded with an explosion of colour at the end. We hoped – and banked – on the same formula and as it happened that was exactly what transpired. For the first burst I was focused on the wrong area hoping to factor in the logo – the Paralympic Agitos – with the fireworks.
It didn’t work as I planned but Harry had me covered. It was then a case of sitting and waiting until the end of the ceremony fireworks.
We struggled at first to find anywhere open to wait with a snack and drink before finding a restaurant with a toasty interior to keep warm and wait. When we headed back out to set up, we found that the majority of the boulevard near the flame was now closed off for safety, so we had to find a position with the general public as we set up for the big finale. It made things interesting but we both got some nice fireworks images from the display after the flame was lit.
The fireworks weren’t visible from inside the stadium so once the show was over the boulevard of Olympic park was full of people. Large numbers of people were stopping at the fountain at the base of the flame watching a lazer/light/water show and it looked magnificent, so I packed my gear up as quickly as I could and ran down to get some pictures. It made for some really nice images so once I’d filed them, and with the Paralympic Games officially open, I headed back into the mountains to get some sleep before the 10am start at the biathlon events.
The four hours of sleep didn’t really feel like enough as I headed to the Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Centre with Ronald for the start of competition. We had a couple of false starts along the way to the media centre, but made it with all gear intact (just) with time to settle in for the day.
The classification being contested in the biathlon and the cross-country over the 8 days of competition were: standing, sitting and visually impaired for both men and women. It was a steep learning curve for me. Working a sport which I was very unfamiliar with coupled with weather conditions/surrounds I’d never worked in made for an interesting first day! Even though the grey skies made for “flat” pictures I think it was a blessing in disguise as adding in managing exposures while shooting for the first time on snow may have been a painful process had the sun been out! Ronald and I worked our positions out the best we could and provided solid coverage for day one and felt we had a much greater understanding of the best ways to cover each of the races around the course for the coming days. We also knew that to get the best pictures on offer we would have to walk a great deal around the course in fairly tough, slushy, often difficult conditions.
There were plans early in the trip to share around the events but it became very apparent it would be in the best interests of coverage for photographers to remain at the same event locations for the games. This meant Ronald and I could plan our coverage better as we gained a stronger knowledge of the course, competitors and the classifications for the cross-country and biathlon. With day one of completion completed we headed to the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort village tired, cold and very hungry! We found a place to eat but my day wasn’t over as I was down for the medals plaza at 6pm. I didn’t have time for a meal so I headed off.
With 12 gold medals contested on day 1 in the mountain venues, it was a long medal ceremony evening after a long day of competition and not a great deal of sleep after the opening. Once I’d filed my pictures, eaten, caught the bus back to our apartments and prepared my equipment/clothes for day two, I was extremely happy to finally fall into bed at 11pm.
Day 1 of 9 had been navigated!
Usually the first day of any event is one of the hardest as you spend most of your energy working everything out and the bigger event, the more there is to work out. It’s not only the photography related aspects of the job but often the “other” obstacles you often have to work around. It’s often the little things which burn too much mental energy. Little things like trying to get the back door of the bus opened so it’s easier to get on with all your gear. It sounds simple but add together a language barrier with ill-tempered bus drivers and the simple becomes … well … less simple!
Day 2 was again under grey skies with the odd break in the clouds as the competition moved into cross-country. With only two long races in the men’s and women’s sitting I was thankful for a shorter day to catch my breath. At the end of day two it was very apparent that the Russians were really going to dominate the events with one particular athlete Roman Petushkov in the men’s sitting, looking unbeatable. After two gold medals in two days he looked like the athlete most likely to dominate proceedings.
With the sun shining day 3 looked like it might be a nice day to take pictures! The standing cross-country races over long distances also meant the courses would extend further into the back country of the venue so we hiked out early to find some positions. Carrying a heap of camera gear through soft slushy snow in the outer regions of the cross-country course threw in another interesting experience. Sweating! Obviously dressed for the snow and trudging your way through the snow gets the body heat up in nice warm, sunny Sochi conditions! By the time I had found a position for the first lap I was overheating. I stripped back a couple of layers and as I waited slowly put them all back on as I cooled down.
I was happy with the first position I’d selected for the first athletes to pass so after cooling down and a few test shots all there was left to do was wait. As often happens in photography once you’ve waited for a decent amount of time for something and obstacle often pops up. This morning was no exception. Shortly before the race start two course workers decided the best place for them to stand was directly in the background of my nice clean mountain backdrop!!
Thankfully body language can cross the verbal language barrier and they soon realised I was lying face down in the freezing snow for a better angle of the skiers in front of the mountains and not a picture of them in their multi-coloured Sochi uniforms holding shovels. Crisis averted and the morning produced a nice set of images from the men’s 20km cross-country standing and visually impaired event in clear soft sunlight.
I headed back in after the men’s race and found a position closer to the finish line for the women’s 15km as I swapped with Ronald who was heading out for the afternoon, with me covering the finish. The race finish made for a couple of nice pictures as the athletes collapsed exhausted after reaching the finishing line. It’s inspiring to see the lengths to which athletes push their bodies and it’s even more inspiring watching athletes with visual impairment, loss of limbs or other physical disabilities pushing their physical boundaries at the highest level.
Early on day 4 the warm sunshine of day 3 swiftly became a hazy memory as thick fog blanketed the mountain. The visibility was poor with the fear being they may not be able to start the first event.The events did however get underway at the scheduled time but with visibility down to about 10 to 20 metres at times it made photography a whole new challenge. Trying to focus on people appearing out of the gloom in really dark conditions isn’t high on the list of “What Makes for Good Pictures” so I did what a could to get “something”. Exposures also became a challenge as the light would vary if the fog slightly lifted or became thicker.
All in all it wasn’t all that much fun, then… it started raining. Then it wasn’t fun at all. I’ve been wet and cold before but as I stood on the photo riser at the finish line late on day 4, I thought to myself “I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold for this long before.” It was struggle to do the job at hand with wet gloves and freezing fingers making it hard enough holding the camera, let alone using it effectively. I was extremely thankful for the hand warmers Ronald had given me earlier that morning, but my hands were still icy. It was a long day and I felt for Ronald as he headed into Rosa Khutor to cover the medals ceremonies from 6pm. I was thankful I was able to head back to the apartment and have an early-ish night.
We’d heard there was rain forecast again for day 5 so it was a little difficult to find the motivation to get moving. As we made the trip up the mountain in the gondola, the fear of rain dispersed as we climbed higher to discover it was snowing. I’ve never experienced proper snow before so for me – a small town NSW country boy – it was all quite exciting! The snow fall over night was obviously significant as the ground had a thick covering changing the landscape massively. Days before it had been sunny, warm and seemed like they might struggle to run the events later in the week as the snow was melting. On that morning, it looked like I had expected it to with snow covering everything. From a photographic point of view it was great as it changed the backgrounds a great deal, giving us a little more to work with as we had worked most of the nice backgrounds already and images were starting to look very similar. “Different” backgrounds gave us other options to try and create some varied images.
The excitement of the snow had worn off a little bit at the conclusion of the 18th 1km sprint race of the day! It was hard to focus. By focus I mean both in terms of concentration and focus the camera on the athletes. The snow that fell all day became so heavy at times the autofocus was jumping from the skiers to the snow and back and forth. It made it whole new challenge which coupled again with being a bit cold took a great deal of concentration. The conditions did however lead to some nice pictures both out on the course with the snow laden trees and on the finish line where for the first time we had skiers hitting the finish line in groups as the sprints were mass starts not timed events. Though the weather was vastly different than it had been earlier in the week a constant remained – Roman Petushkov of Russia dominated. He won gold again in the men’s 1km sitting sprint and gave me a nice celebration picture as he crossed the line in the dumping snow.
We had crossed the halfway point of the games and day 6 saw a break in competition at the Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Centre. This gave Ronald and I the opportunity to head to the Rosa Khutor Alpine Centre with Ian and Tom to cover the Slalom. It was also a late start at 3pm meaning we could have a sleep in – which as this point was greatly appreciated. After a slow start we headed up the mountain in bright sunshine.
We left ourselves heaps of time to scope out and lock in positions with good clean backgrounds on the best gates. Once in position there wasn’t too much to do except sit, wait and watch the horrible looking black cloud slowly creep closer to our mountain. The cloud arrived before the competition killing any hopes of back-lit skiers with dark backgrounds, but I enjoyed the action which was hugely different to the biathlon and cross country I’d been shooting previously. Seeing visually impaired skiers skim down an extremely steep icy slope was nothing short of frightening!
I wasn’t even that comfortable perched on the side of the slope with crampons so was therefore inspired by the courage and skill of all the athletes flying by. I tried a few different pictures in the short time I had which quickly ran out as I had to head back into the village for the medals. I stayed as long as I could before making the dash down the hill making the medals ceremony before the 6pm start. I was a bit frustrated at first as I would have liked to stay for the evening session of the slalom but when I saw later on TV that the fog and drizzle had rolled, part of me was happy not to be on the side of the slope.
On most big events you often have flat days when not much really happens for you photographically with the day coming and going without much to show for it. Day 7 at the biathlon was defiantly one of those days and heading home from competition I didn’t feel I’d contributed too much. Tiredness had caught up with me a bit and felt I needed to refocus with just two days to go.
The first of the relays were scheduled for day 8 and after a quiet previous day I’d hoped I’d get a bit more out of the day. It didn’t begin as well as I’d hoped with the group start of the first race almost a complete whiteout with thick fog. The fog lifted and the day progressed the sun popped out briefly helping giving the chance some better pictures. The Russian relay teams dominated the races and once again Roman Petushkov was standing on the gold medal dais at the end of the day for the sixth time, the most gold medals won by an individual at a single Games.
Each day after the races they would hold a flower ceremony with the medalists receiving a bouquet of flowers. It was exactly the same as a medal ceremony without the medals and no anthem which I found a strange concept as the athletes also received flowers at the medal ceremony, but that’s beside the point!
As the games were drawing to a close the medals for the last two days were to be presented at the venue so instead of a flower ceremony they held medal ceremonies. As I walked back to start filing pictures (Ronald was shooting the last medal ceremony) I noticed a large crowd of people gathered near the VIP area. I tried to see who was causing the excitement but all I could see were a large number of very serious, very large security men with eyes darting around the crowd and surrounds. I put two and two together (I was going to write “After Puttin two and together…” but refrained) I realised Russian president Vladimir Puttin was present. I assumed he was on hand to witness the historical 6th gold medal won by Petushkov and assumed he would be presenting the medals.
With that in mind I joined Ronald for the ceremony only to be disappointed that Mr Puttin wasn’t presenting. As we left to head back to the media room I ended up stuck in no man’s land on a walkway as the president’s entourage came marching towards me. I was pushed to the side and in this strange situation found Mr Puttin walking directly past me less than 2 metres away. A little unsure of the best thing to do I did what came naturally – I banged off about 5 frames as he walked past as he looked at me with a quizzical look. Once he was passed I felt in behind his security team following them to the Russian open relay team who Puttin wanted to personally congratulate. The throng of media, security and volunteers didn’t make for the ideal photographic situation as Puttin congratulated Petushkov on his historical win, but I was able to manufacture a couple pictures to capture the moment.
Once the hullabaloo died down, day 8 was over and we headed back into the village for dinner and medals coverage for Ronald. I was scheduled for medals to complete my games coverage on day 9 but much to my joy there wasn’t a ceremony on the last night due to the closing ceremony! I was pretty stoked about that so to share the happiness I stayed with Ronald and filed his pictures of his ceremonies as it made the job much quicker and easier with two people.
The last day had arrived and the sun was shining. It was looking good for a chance to get some nice pictures in the sunlight at the last day of cross-country, but we were used to swift changes in weather so didn’t get too excited. The sun stuck around long enough to get some nice images and give the coverage rounded feel.
By rounded I mean all types of weather conditions! Rain, fog, snow, wind and then sun to cap it off. We had been told to expect rain which we were all dreading as it would have meant having to dry everything out before being able to pack for departure the next day. That would have made the process of packing a little more painful.
Thankfully it was a dry and warm so with all the races completed on the final day it was just a final medal ceremonies for me and JOB DONE, as we weren’t on the closing ceremony. (The coastal team were looking after it ) The last of the ceremonies was for the men’s sitting 10km cross-country and for once Roman Petushkov, who finished 4th not adding to his all time record of 6 golds, wasn’t on the dais. At the ceremony conclusion I gave a little “job done yeehaa” stood up (all flower and medal ceremonies at the venue had to be shot kneeling on the ice) and turned to leave. My celebration was premature.
The Russian team who dominated many of the events over the 8 competition days had different ideas deciding to join together as team to thank the crowd for their support. It wasn’t something that anyone had been advised was happening so… let me just say it became a free-for-all! The main point of focus was Petushkov who joined his team proudly wearing all 6 of his gold medals. It wasn’t only photographers and TV camera crew clambering for shots but pretty much anyone else in the vicinity including volunteers and team support staff. It was a bit of a bun fight but thankfully Russians seem to have a great knack of drawing things out, so I stuck around and got a couple of worthwhile pictures. One of the local newspaper photographers was setting up Roman with his medals in various poses and he was happy to pose for everyone.With a few images of the man of the moment secured, I was NOW done. Thankfully we had a remote editor Justin working on our pictures in London meaning we could head back to start the packing process.
With a majority of the packing done Tom, Ian, Ronald and I headed into the village for our final meal together for the games. It started raining during dinner and we all voiced how thankful we were it held off until after the completion of the events! By the time we left the restaurant the rain had turned to significant snow fall. We ducked in the Irish Pub on the way to the bus stop for “a beer” and when we left around 1:30am the snow was dumping down. Unfortunately all but the buses to the airport had stopped running and as taxis don’t really exist in Rosa Khutor, we found ourselves sheltering from heavy snow trying to work out how to get back to our apartments! We waited for a long time in the forlorn hope a bus would come. Once it became apparent there wasn’t a bus we confidently stepped on an airport bus telling each other we’d get him to stop. Thankfully he made an unscheduled stop for us and we made it back without having to make the 30 minute walk in the snow.
I finished my packing and got a few hour sleeps before I was up and preparing for the long trip home. The huge dump of snow during the night coupled with the still heavy snow falling didn’t make dragging 4 bags to the uncovered bus stop the most enjoyable element of the event, but I was ready for the bus to start the trip. The trip home was a great deal quicker than getting to Sochi and I was home in around 31 hours, made a great deal shorter due to the tight turn around between my domestic (delayed) Sochi flight to Moscow and my connection to Dubai. If it wasn’t for the extremely helpful and understanding Emirates staff member at Moscow Domodedovo Airport my transit could have been a great deal longer and more painful.
Landing in Sydney I must admit was more than a little relieved. Being in Russia as the world watched their troop movements in the Ukraine then flying more than halfway round the world less than week after an international flight disappeared without a trace, it was great to land safely in my home port.
All images © copyright Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
and are available at www.gettyimages.com/sport