Day 99 – Australia (14 Sept, 2000)
A Very Big Day
The last few days of the relay were big. Enormous crowds lining the route – often 10 deep. We were starting at 6.30am and the last Torchbearer was at 7pm. Over 12 hours of constant emotion, cheers, gridlock, and tears of joy.
Just after the lunch celebration site at La Perouse, I got transported ahead to Coogee Beach for a special segment of the relay. We were taking the Flame onboard a surf life saving boat from Coogee to Bondi. Waiting on the beach were a flotilla of boats and rowing crews.
Two Torchbearers, Chris Allum and Jessie Miley-Dyer were the lucky two to be carrying the Flame. We started off through the crashing waves, although the surf wasn’t too big that day, keeping a light torch up and out of the surf is not the easiest thing to do. The crowd at Coogee was a good size, but when we came round the headland to see the crowd on Bondi it was frightening.
The entire beach was covered with people. The crowd spilled into the sea, waist deep. Bondi is not my favourite beach, even though it is an Australian icon. But seeing the crowds, the newly erected beach volleyball stadium and the flotilla of surf life saving boats made me very proud in a weird sort of way.
Photographically, it was a huge challenge to shoot from a small motor boat as we jockeyed for positioned amongst the waves splashing over our bow to get a good shot. And there was a lot of competition from other camera crews too. With one day to go before the Olympic Opening Ceremony the whole city was awash with media crews from all round the world. Two offical camera boats followed, plus our torch relay boat, plus about 4 police security boats plus another 6 police jet skis. Another 5 or 6 boats were trying to get close to the action – with the police jet skis pushing them away.
Up in the air, there was just as much action. I counted 7 helicopters hovering above us. I wasn’t sure Sydney had 7 helicopters – but there they were, all hovering, almost all with cameras filming from inside them. It was a crazy, crazy moment to think of all this intense attention on such a simple Flame, carried by an unknown duo of young people, Chris and Jessie.
The journey took 39 minutes. I shot 80 frames, just trying to get something in frame as our boat bumped over the waves out of sync with the surf life saving boats bumping over the waves. I’m not sure if any one image captures the moment in its fullest – but it sure was one crazy ride.
Landing on Bondi beach was terrifying. Our boat stayed out so I could shoot Jessie’s landing, and all I could see was her being swamped by the crowds. I don’t remember how it actually happened, but my next series of shots is of the next torchbearer running up the beach. I guess I was dropped off and somehow managed to make my way to the front of the crowds pretty quickly.
Next I was driven ahead of the relay again and dropped at the Sydney Opera House for the next big moment of the day. The first photo opp was at the steps of the Opera House – which looked spectacular with its Olympic branding in full splendour. This was the location for the Olympic triathlon bike/run transition.
Security was really tight but I was let through to get a good vantage point – the annoyance of the other 20 or so photographers that had had to camp out in their cordoned-off area for the last 3 hours. I had arrived with 9 minutes to spare (cutting everything fine as we battled though traffic from Bondi to the Harbour).
The Flame arrived, blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli paused for about 30 seconds then moved on. And so I moved on – overtaking it behind the Opera House walkway to get in position for the hero moment with tennis legend Pat rafter and music legend Olivia Newton-John.
Again I was guided into the front row of the media pen (where photographers and been crammed in since 4pm).
While the Opera House steps looked spectacular dressed for the occasion, the tiny stage set up for the Rafter/Newton John moment looked like it was an afterthought. Not even a black skirting around the base of the wheel-on stage. I think the government-run Opera House set up this stage – while the Opera House Steps was an Olympic committee set-up. ‘Underwhelming’ is the nicest way to describe it.
I had about 6 minutes to catch my breathe before they released Olivia to run from the back of the Opera House and out into the full view of the public. She and Pat got a roar of appreciation from the massive crowds. As they exchanged the Flame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge light up with the Olympic rings (and a few feeble pyros off the pylons at each end). It was a warm and fuzzy moment for all.
Photographically it was a challenge for me. My camera was severely hampered low light situations, and using flash to light the stage (which was about 10m away) sucked the energy of my batteries pretty fast. I couldn’t shoot as much as I wanted while I waited a few seconds between each flash fire for it to recharge. It went from 2 seconds between frames to waiting 8 seconds between frames as the big external battery pack struggled to keep up – which is an excruciating long time to wait to shoot when the never to be repeated action is happening in front of you. I knew it was not the best coverage I could have got out of the moment – but I was on such a massive schedule of events that I was literally running from one magic moment to the next and doing the best I could to record it all faithfully on the under-developed camera technology I had at the time.
After a full 2minutes and 50 seconds, the moment was over and Pat ran off with the Flame heading towards the Town Hall. Again, I was on my feet and running to overtake him to get ahead for more shots. I was the only photographer allowed to do this. All the others were held back in the media pen by security. It allowed me to shoot so many multiple big torch relay moments. All other photographers had to pick a location, turn up hours earlier and wait to get that one moment. The Flame headed up George St towards the Town Hall, and the crowd were 15 or 20 deep. It was just a crazy scene. Police were out in force keeping crowds behind barriers.
The torchbearer to carry the Flame up George St was all time swimming legend Dawn Fraser. But to be honest, after Bondi, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge moments, this was a little underwhelming for me. Yes, the crowds went crazy, but their wasn’t a photographic impact to any of it. It was just a lot of police, crowds, escort runners and camera crews. Hmmm.. reading that I realised how jaded I must have been at the time to find that mix underwhelming.
But that is what being front row as official photographer on the Olympic Torch Relay did to you. After a while, even big, spectacular, crowd frenzy moments feel ‘normal’. I later read that police estimated that 1 million people had crammed into the Sydney downtown area for that night. It felt like it too. But for us, for me, it was another long, long day of crowds and emotion.