Looking At The Olympics From the Inside Out: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

July 30th, 2012 12:10 PM | Comments Off on Looking At The Olympics From the Inside Out: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

“Looking at the Olympics from the Inside Out:  A Photojournalist’s Perspective” is reprinted with kind permission from Valrey Van Gundy, Editor of Northwest Rider magazine.

by Kim MacMillan

The MacMillans at dinner in Greenwich. Photo by our waiter.


The sign said “Photographers’ Entrance to the Field of Play”. It was mounted on the door in the purple wall at the south end of the equestrian arena at Greenwich Park. I slipped through the door, trotted up the stairs, out into the daylight on the arena floor and took a deep breath while I turned 360 degrees to take in the view. I had arrived at the 2012 London Olympic Games and was ready to do my job as a credentialed photojournalist.

The view from the floor of the arena was stunning. Looking south from the stadium there was a wonderful view of the Queen’s House, a beautiful white stone palace built for Anne of Denmark, wife of English King James I, and designed by architect Inigo Jones. There were no grandstands at the southern end of the arena to allow everyone to see this magnificent building. Beyond the Queen’s House you could see the Royal Naval College, the masts of the Cutty Sark tall sailing ship (a tea clipper now in dry dock used as a museum), the River Thames and the cityscape of London beyond.

Grandstands lined the long sides along the east and west of the arena. There was a grandstand to the north as well, and over the top of those stands you could see the roof of the Royal Observatory with the red ball mounted on a weathervane indicating the location of the Prime Meridian, the line that divides Eastern and Western Hemispheres on the globe. The arena floor, which was set for eventing dressage, was beautifully decorated with flowers. Some in pots shaped like ships, a nod to the maritime heritage of the Borough of Royal Greenwich, my home away from home for the next three weeks.

Planning the Trip & The Journey to London

Journalists’ work stations in the Main Media Center. Photo by Kim MacMillan.

We had arrived at Heathrow Airport in London late on the Tuesday evening just before 11 p.m. (with the Games set to begin on Friday) and were relieved to find a nice older gentleman waiting on us at the airport Olympic accreditation center (the center was to have closed at 11 p.m., so we were lucky he had been expecting us and did not mind waiting past closing time). In about forty minutes we had our credentials validated, bags collected and were looking for the driver of the “private hire” car that we had booked to pick us up and drive us the hour plus to our college dormitory in Greenwich. After some panic and failed attempts to use the pay phones in the airport, we found our driver. We relaxed and looked out the windows at our first views of London as he piloted us through the darkened city. 

Our  “Home” in Greenwich

Our dormitory room at Cutty Sark Hall, which is part of the housing system for the University of Greenwich and our new “home” for the next three weeks, was a “smallish” space (desk and chair, single bed, small refrigerator, wardrobe cabinet, an under-the-bed drawer and a bathroom “pod” – a small enclosed plastic unit about the size of two phone booths with a shower, sink and toilet). It was one in a group of eight flats that shared a common area and kitchen. Our fellow “dormies” were other equestrian journalists from around the world as well as the equestrian venue media center staff and some other equestrian Olympic officials. Our group of eight rooms included journalists and photographers from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Germany and we had fun making and renewing acquaintances. It felt like being back in college again!

Being at Cutty Sark Hall actually worked as well as any media housing we’ve had at an international games as we could walk to the venue, be through the security checks (even media and officials completed three of them to enter the venue!) and ready to work in about 12 minutes. We were also close to two train stations (they gave us “Oyster” travel cards to use for the trains and buses while we were there) and a small Marks & Spencer store (a grocery and department store chain common in London) and two phone stores (we discovered that we had to buy phone service that worked over there – our cell phones were supposed to, but did not). The dorm also had a pay-for-use laundry and after we figured out the system it came in handy, albeit expensive (you purchased a card with an integrated circuit [IC] chip in it, charged it with money from an on-line store in ten-pound increments and then swiped it to use the washer and dryer).

Everything in London has an IC computer chip in it – the laundry cards, the door keys, the train cards and the credit cards. They were amazed at our “old-fashioned” American credit cards (with no IC chip and that require a signature to use – you do not have to sign using the British-style credit cards), and some of their card readers couldn’t handle trying to process our American credit cards!

Behind the Scenes at the Olympic Media Complex

The equestrian arena at Greenwich Park taken with a fisheye lens. Photo by Kim MacMillan.

The MMC, IBC, and the surrounding “media high street”, offered:  a main help desk; technology help desk; photo help desk; transportation help desk; work stations; lockers; printed schedules and results and terminals to access the Olympic My Info+ system; a media lounge; a media food court; post office; first aid station; pharmacy; worship center; Olympic merchandise shop; technology store; Nikon and Cannon booths and a pro camera shop; beauty salon; gymnasium; a tourist information center; a massage clinic; several bars, and an entertainment stage for nightly coffee-house style concerts.

For those of us working sports venues farther afield, the long trip to the MCC and our own crazy work hours precluded us being able to enjoy the MCC facilities too much, but it was amazing to see. I probably made the trip to the MCC about six times, mostly to renew loaned camera equipment from the Nikon booth.

Greenwich Park – The Equestrian Venue

Will Coleman (Gordonsville, VA) and the Thoroughbred gelding Twizzel of the U.S.A. take the Royal Borough drop jump with stunning views of London in the background. Photo by Allen MacMillan.

The Park shelters a fair amount of wildlife, including squirrels, birds and deer, and boasts beautifully landscaped gardens and natural areas, as well as some protected habitat (this was cordoned off from the public on cross-country day). The squirrels were quite friendly and they walked with us on our media walk of the cross-country course. The Park also encompasses the Royal Observatory and the Royal Maritime Museum. The equestrian venue media center and the international riders’ lounge were housed in the back of the Maritime Museum. Although the exhibits in Maritime Museum were open to the public through an entrance outside the secured area, the Royal Observatory was not until after cross-country was over, due to security concerns, because of its location inside the Park.

Across the street the Royal Naval College was where lines queued for ticket holders to enter the Park. To entertain them as they waited in line, a street fair (including food vendors, entertainment by street performers and a big screen television showing Games coverage) was staged in the courtyard of the College. Thousands of ticket holders walked over any of four parallel bridges spanning the main street and over the outside perimeter fencing. They entered the Park on the other side after going through one of the eight security check points. After security and ticket scanning they got to walk through the courtyard of the magnificent Queen’s House and make their way to their seats.

Olympic Security

Security was operated by a combination of British military personnel, police officers from the local area and from all over the U.K, private security firms and trained volunteers. No one (including the athletes, the press, volunteers and officials) entered the Park, or any Olympic venue, without going through a security check which included an airport-style x-ray machine for your bags and walk-through metal detectors for the people. If you set off an alarm in the walk-through detector, you were detained for a wand search. Your credentials were checked on average at least three times at each security point.

The British Navy also had their largest air craft carrier parked in the Thames just about half mile upstream from our dormitory and helicopters took off and landed on its decks on a regular basis. Though we heard sirens going off in Greenwich nearly round the clock from our dorm room and as we walked the streets, we really never saw any major incidents at the venues.

Some of the biggest fuss we noted in the equestrian venue was when the British Royals and Ann Romney (wife of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and part owner of American dressage horse Rafalca ridden by Jan Ebeling) attended the competition. Britain’s Princess Ann, Prince Harry, Prince William and his wife Kate, and Prince Charles’ second wife Camilla, all attended several days of the equestrian competition. Princess Ann is an avid rider and competed for Great Britain in eventing back in the 1970s. Her daughter Zara Phillips was on the British eventing team this year. Royals from Sweden and Denmark were also in attendance. Many days there were almost as many cameras trained on the “Olympic Family” boxes, where they all sat in the stands, as there were on the competition in the arena. The dignitaries did have noticeable security with them. Although firearms were not visible on their guards, I don’t think it would have been a good idea to approach them.

Tough Competition

Eventing gold medalists Michael Jung and Sam of Germany negotiate the second water jump with ease. Photo by Kim MacMillan.

Germany took the team gold in eventing, team silver in dressage and individual gold and bronze in eventing. Their solid-gold event rider Michael Jung and his trusty mount Sam are the first-ever pair to be Olympic, World, European and German champions all at the same time. Another perennially strong equestrian country, the Netherlands, took team silver and individual silver in show jumping and team bronze and individual silver in dressage. All but the most observant of recent international competitions might have been surprised at the nations taking home one medal each:  Ireland (individual bronze in show jumping – Cian O’Connor on Blue Loyd 12); Saudi Arabia (team bronze in show jumping – the first equestrian Olympic medal for that country); Sweden (individual silver in eventing – Sara Algotsson Ostholt riding Wega), and Switzerland (individual gold in show jumping – Steve Guerdat riding Nino Des Buissonets).

The news was not as good for the teams from the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. finished the team competitions sixth in dressage and show jumping and seventh in eventing. The highest placed individuals representing the U.S. were Rich Fellers and Flexible (Sherwood, OR), eighth in show jumping; Karen O’Connor and Mr. Medicott (The Plains, VA), ninth in eventing and Steffen Peters and Ravel (San Diego, CA), 17th in dressage. All in all, our U.S. athletes did their best for their country and showed grace under adversity. This was Ravel’s final competition of his celebrated career and I have to admit I was a bit teary eyed as they did their final salute on center line in the freestyle and Peters leaned over and whispered something into Ravel’s ear.

After the disappointment of both their dressage and eventing teams failing to finish, the lone bright spot for Team Canada was their show jumping team’s fifth place finish. Even after losing team members Tiffany Foster and Victor, who were eliminated due to the hypersensitivity protocol (an FEI rule that states if any horse is found to be hypersensitive to touch they are eliminated from further competition – the FEI issued a statement that Foster was not accused of any wrong doing however), Canadian riders Jill Henselwood (George), Eric Lamaze (Durly Chin de Muze) and Ian Miller (Star Power) represented their country well. One amazing fact about the Canadian show jumpers is that Ian Miller was riding on his tenth Olympic team!

The Highs and Lows of Journalism

So far I’ve described the many perks of working at an Olympic Games, but before you consider running out to buy a camera to take up the profession, there are some less attractive aspects of working as a photojournalist. Mind you, I’m not complaining, but the job isn’t for everyone. Beyond the thousands of dollars invested in equipment and the years it takes to learn to use it (I still learn something every day), it involves long hours working in every kind of weather and lugging around heavy cases of equipment everywhere you go. Our camera cases full of equipment weigh between 45 and 60 pounds each and our best camera body with our most expensive lens weighs about 12 pounds, so imagine holding that up for 8 hours a day; even with a monopod, your arms and shoulders feel it at the end of the day.

The media are the first ones to arrive each day and they stay long after the spectators  have gone to dinner or even to sleep for the night. Once you take your spot around the arena to take photos, you may not move for any reason until there is a break in the competition – if it starts to rain (as it did almost daily in London), too bad, you cannot move to put on a rain coat and you certainly may not put up an umbrella while a horse and rider are in the arena (understandable, I live in fear of being the one who spooks a horse at a competition). You learn to come prepared and to be proactive.

If it is 4 a.m. and you still haven’t filed your story or found the photo your editor is counting on you to send them, you stay up until it is done. You eat, sleep and take breaks when you can, which isn’t often during a competition. And, if you do not like cut-throat competition, being an international photojournalist is not for you – the stampede of photographers to the line to take awards photos or the crush to get the perfect competition or press conference shot is not for the faint of heart. 

 I read somewhere recently that being a journalist is among the top five highest-stress, lowest-paid jobs and I believe it to be true. Very, very few of us are paid like Katie Couric or Dan Rather. So what is the attraction? For me it is the creative outlet, the love of travel, the rush of seeing my work in print and looking at our sport from the inside out.

Kim & Allen MacMillan are professional photographers and owners of MacMillan Photography & Media Services, located in Huntington, Indiana. Photos in this article and corresponding galleries are copyright protected and are used courtesy of MacMillan Photography & Media Services. Inquiries about these photos should be directed to photo@looncreekenterprises.com or 260-468-2392.

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