The Other Real Day 01 – Uluru, Australia (8 June, 2000 )
With the lack of internet connectivity (this was 2000 remember) the media and public awareness of the 17 day Oceania leg of the relay was pretty low. We had just completed a once in a life time journey across the Pacific, but for the rest of Australia, the Torch Relay really started on 8th June 2000. And first stop of the 100 day route around Australia was right in it’s centre at Uluru.
Expectations were high. Australian media was going to be watching and critiquing. We were going from having just 3 or 4 cameras shooting the relay, to dozens. TV networks were broadcasting live. Our ‘little’ Torch Relay crew of approx 15 would grow to over 100. Mistakes, delays or trip ups would now be front page news.
Landing at Uluru and looking out the window I could see over 100 cameramen penned into a media enclosure, TV broadcast trucks with satellite dishes pointing into the sky, the Olympic Minister, the Governor General… police, celebrities, crowds. Nauru seemed like a world away.
A few funny things happen on this frenetic, icy cold morning at Uluru. The plan was for the Governor General of Australia to light the first torch from the safety lantern and then hand it to indigenous sportswoman, Nova Peris-Kneebone. The symbolism was dramatic. The Olympic Flame’s first moments on Australian soil. Australia’s indigenous iconic landmark and the top indigenous sportswoman.
The truth is a little different. The first flame to come off the Ansett Flame Plane (another sponsor airline that went bankrupt just after the Games) was one of the two safety lanterns. A pretty basic looking box had been made in New Zealand when it was realised we needed to hide the lanterns coming off the plane in front of Australia’s media. The real first person to carry the Flame on Australian soil was Flame Security chief Chris Reeve. Not that anyone knew that as he carried the non-descript box off the plane and across the tarmac.
Then the other safety lantern was officially carried down the stairs and handed to the Governor General. He had been briefed how to, very carefully, put the brass handled wick into the tiny hole in the miners lantern to transfer the Flame out and onto a torch. Unfortunately he was not as steady as he once was, and he pushed the wick in too far and extinguished to Flame! What a disaster! I don’t know how it was seen on live television – the cameras were quite a way back from the position. But all of the torch relay crew gasped.
So it was Chris who was to star again – this time in a not so secret way.
He had taken the first safety lantern to the police vehicle waiting off to the side of the tarmac. The Olympic Minster, Governor General (now looking very sheepish), a gaggle of dignitaries and all the indigenous traditional owners stood there not knowing what was going to happen.
Chris jogged across the tarmac, and not wanting to risk a second disaster and lose the only remaining Flame, lit a torch himself from it at the security vehicle and then gingerly jogged back across the tarmac – , holding the torch in a low, casual way, as if he was not really carry the Olympic Flame, trying in vain not to look like he was now the first torchbearer at Australia in front of the world’s media and live television!
He then handed the Torch to the Governor General who quickly passed it straight onto the first of the traditional owners. Along the line it went, before the Offical first Torchbearer, Nova Peris-Kneebone, took hold of it and then started the run around the base of Uluru.
Lesson learnt – only the Flame security team would ever be allowed to put the wick into the safety lantern from now on.
I suspect the media, if they did catch on to what happened, chose to ignore it and focus on the celebratory aspect of this historic moment.
From a photographic perspective, the big moment of the Flame Arrival, the set up was not great. It was 9am in the morning and the staging location meant the sun was shining straight into the lens – with terrible backlighting of the torchbearers, the rock (Uluru) and everything else that should have been an iconic moment in Australian history.
Neither I, nor any other photographer got anything great.
Then we moved onto the actual running with the Flame around Uluru. Again, lighting was tricky. The iconic shot that was needed was an indigenous torchbearer with Uluru in the background. But that never happened for me. The best shot I got of the rock and the Flame was with a white guy with red hair (a natural blonde who dyed his hair red to honour his special moment at the base of the red rock)— kind of ironic! But that’s the challenge when you can’t stop and pose the right torchbearers.
I got a few decent images – but nothing great. The next day most of the Australian newspapers (including the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald) ran my photo of tennis great Evonne Cawley on their front page. It wasn’t a great shot, and probably could have had sharper focus. I heard a few photographers bitching about the photo the following afternoon as they looked through the newspapers (‘who is this guy, this image is soft”). I didn’t say it out loud, but my response was ‘well, it must have been better than anything you guys shot that day. And I’m handing these photos out to news agencies for free, you guys actually work full time for these papers and still they chose not to use any of yours…”).
Overall, I felt I had passed the test of shooting the Torch relay in the ‘real world’ – and over the next 100 days had dozens of my images on front pages of newspapers and magazines – which is really the best way to gauge if you are doing the right thing.
Reading the other headline of the day, I notice that there was a coup in the Solomon Islands and 800 expats were evacuated via navy ship. We had just run the Torch Relay through the Solomon a week earlier… Makes you wonder what might have happened if we were there the day they decided to stage the coupe. The Olympic Flame would have made a pretty good hostage…