The Digital Journalist
Canon Know How
The Best of the Olympics: Athens 2004
September 2004

by Horst Faas

It was very hot, sporting events stretched the workday under the blazing sun to 16 hours without the usual rest day inserted halfway through the Games program, transportation was adequate, the housing spartan and the food lousy. But the pictures were great and the volunteers, the Athenians and even the police were a friendly lot who helped photojournalists when they needed help.

The photo opportunities were better than ever, and the Athens 2004 officials were much more flexible and relaxed than those at past Games.

Arriving in Athens, almost everybody expected these Games to be held on building sites with catastrophic working conditions. Newswriters who predicted chaos owe the Greek organizers a written apology.

Visitors of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games cover themselves from sand blown by gusting winds in the Olympic complex in Athens, August 15, 2004.

REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
Working conditions for photojournalists were professionally prepared, innovative and the basics worked well. Creature comforts were lacking, but the hard-core professionals who are assigned to cover Olympic Games expect to battle on until total exhaustion. Like all athletes since the ancient Greek Olympic Games began in 776 B.C., they did.

The Athenian Facelift

After losing a bid and having to cancel celebrations four years earlier, Athenians were jubilant in September 1997 after being awarded the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, from then on referred to as "Athens 2004."

Preparations for the Games picked up rapidly after Gianna Angelopoulos Daskalaki, the "Kyria" (Lady) to many Athenians, was put in charge. Daskalaki is an elegant but steely, good-looking woman, married to considerable wealth and a mother of two - and very ambitious. Local pundits say her many ambitions include Greek politics, as far as the presidency of Greece. The facelift she would give the Greek capital in the time left until the opening ceremony on Aug. 13, 2004 was drastic, and affected almost all of the 4.5 million populace of Athens. Her own facelifts became the subject of tabloid news.

Greek taxpayers will remember the 2004 Games for many years, because they will eventually have to pay most of the bills for staging the Olympic Games as well as for the new structures, roads and rail systems which have changed Athens profoundly.

Dusty Building Turns Into a New City

In the past two years, Athenians have had to put up with the dirt, dust, noise and traffic restrictions which affected the whole city. New highways were laid across Athens and the one-hundred-year-old metro (underground) system was modernized and enlarged. Wherever the builders scraped the ground underneath Athens, they excavated archaeological proof of its 3,000-year history, dating back to Homer and the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. The discoveries were left underground - they are now displayed and have turned every Athens metro station into a museum. The terminal of one metro line lets visitors emerge to the wonders of the Parthenon and the Acropolis overlooking Athens and now bathed in glorious sunshine or floodlights.

New bus lanes, a regional rail network, a stunning bridge spanning the Peloponnese, vast plazas and the giant sports stadia which rise over the low-built, earthquake-prone city, have changed Athens forever. The central stadia complex, which includes the main athletic stadium, the aquatic sports and tennis center and the velodrome, dates back to the early 1980s, when sports in Greece experienced major growth and popularity.

The Spanish star-architect, Santiago Calatrava, revamped them and added spectacular roof structures which, the Greeks hope, will attract visitors as the architecture of the Guggenheim Museum attracts visitors to Bilbao, Spain. Architect Calatrava today enjoys the same high esteem among Athenians as the German soccer trainer, "King" Otto Rehagel, who coached the Greek national team to win the European Soccer Championship.

The "Wonder of Athens"

Many Athenians were angry, critical and complaining about the discomforts the Athens 2004 preparations brought to their daily lives, but they were hurt by the seven-year-long griping and the negative comments from outside Greece, implying that Athens wouldn't be ready on Aug.13. Thus national pride took over - and the "Wonder of Athens" happened during the days before the opening ceremony.

Literally overnight, debris was removed, the streets were swept clean and the last fixtures connected. Here and there flowers and small trees were planted in the dry dust of the Olympic sites and desperately watered to survive the pizza-oven-like temperatures of an Athens August high noon.

There was another wonder: Athenians, usually quite individualistic in their approach to traffic rules and prone to temperamental behavior in the usual traffic jams, obeyed the traffic restrictions and dutifully stayed out of the bus lanes reserved for Olympic traffic. It helped that most Athenians were, as usual, on their holidays, or at least away on their islands for the second weekend of August, when the Games began.

At first it seemed as though the Greeks had left their city and the Olympics to the more than 15,000 athletes and officials, some 60,000 volunteers, more than 10,000 journalists and television folk, 70,000 security troops and an unusually small number of Olympic tourists (fears for their security seem to have kept many at home).

However, as the Games went on, the streets had their traffic jams back and the sports arenas filled up, although rarely to capacity. From parts of Athens, especially in the old city center near the 1896 marble stadium and the Acropolis, a kind of Olympic fiesta atmosphere was reported (journalists rarely found time to venture out of their "Olympic Family" world to testify to that or even to join in).

Odd Mascots Did Not Sell or Photograph Well

The mascots of Athens 2004 are named Phevos and Athena. Phevos is blue, like the sea. Athena is orange, like the setting sun. They were created by a Greek designer, modeled after terracotta doll figures from the 7th century B.C. They have history, but didn't seem to sell and were notably absent in photographs in which athletes usually cuddle the Olympic mascot. Maybe that was because they were not "cute" enough, in the American Disney-style meaning. The Greeks wanted something else and the results were creatures with tiny heads, big bellies and large feet, somehow looking like the neck rests one uses in an airplane. Who wants a cuddly toy looking like that?

Praise the Volunteers

Praise to the 60,000 volunteers who spent their vacations telling photographers where the velodrome was and when the next bus was leaving for archery. Some spent their Olympics running up and down the corridors of the Main Press Center (MPC) to deliver press releases.

One of them was Maria Neromyliolou. She accompanied the bus between the press village and the Main Press Center. Her shirt was half blue and half orange, like the sea and the setting sun. She was proud to be part of the Olympic family and did not give up smiling and repeating her "Kalimera" (good morning) or "Have a nice day" for each weary photographer boarding or leaving her bus, even into the second week. The volunteers survived on the sponsors' Coca-Cola soft drinks and McDonald's fast food. Eric Gay, covering baseball for the AP, reported that "they delivered cold water bottles, two at a time, on hot days." The photo chief of Athens had allotted five free-of-charge bottles of water for each photographer per day.

Ticket Sales, Greek Doping Disaster and New Greek Heroes

Athens 2004 had 5.3 million tickets for sale. About halfway through the Games the IOC announced that 3,233,718 tickets had been sold by then - far from what they had expected. At a daily briefing of the IOC, somebody read the day's attendance figures for specific sports events and said which halls were full - implying others lacked attendance or were empty. Some journalists wrote that the stadia were half-full, others that they were half-empty. A subjective point of view. At some events it was embarrassing for the organizers that athletes performed to empty stands, as seen in photographs and in televised coverage of tennis, for instance.

Greeks seemed to ignore the Olympics after a catastrophic doping scandal involving the Greek superstars Kostas Kenteris, the 200m gold winner in Sydney, and his woman friend, Ekaterini Thanou, who evaded a drug test and then got involved in a mysterious motorbike incident. Their performances were sold out, but as they did not run, tickets were hawked in newspaper ads and by ticket scalpers.

However, a week later it seemed all forgotten: Greece had new heroes winning gold, silver and bronze medals. The stadiums were full and cheers and ovations for Greek winners took up to ten minutes, almost delaying the program. Such a happy day was Aug. 25, when Fani Halkia of Greece won the 400m hurdles, resulting in hundreds of photos reflecting her happiness. Nonetheless, the Olympic Games continued to be a story of doping charges and withdrawn medals, also involving other Greek athletes.

Olympia at the Ancient Sites

The archaeologists did not approve, but some of the sports events were held near, and even invaded, the ancient sites of the Acropolis and Olympia. The cycling road races spectacularly passed by the foot of the Acropolis, with The Parthenon looming large. The Parthenon also provided the scenic backdrop for photographs from the sailing competitions. During archery, Patriot rocket launchers, mounted by the Greek Army against terrorism, and the ruins of Greece's ancient past were visible on the horizon.

At the site of the first Olympic period (776 B.C. to 393 A.D.) in ancient Olympia, Athens 2004 organizers programmed shot put events. Archaeologists had opposed this in general; other purists thought that only men's events should be held, as the ancient Olympic Games were only open to men. Then, women were barred from even seeing the competitions under the penalty of death. Today's political correctness prevailed, however, and the women shot putters competed at Olympia. Nonetheless, it may have been arranged by the god Zeus that the 2004 Olympic gold medal shot put winner, Irina Korzhanenko of Russia, was later disqualified for doping.

Purists were pleased, however, that the setup at Olympia was strictly traditional in remembrance of the 1896 first modern Games in Athens: Electronics were barred, even from the scoreboard. Some of the names of Olympic sites outside Athens - mainly for soccer - rang bells with every Greek history scholar and tourist: Salonika, Volos, Patras, and across the Peloponnese, Heraklion and the town and ancient battlefield of Marathon, where rowing events took place nearby.

World Record for Olympic Accreditations

The number of journalists' accreditations once again set new world records, although it was expected that new technologies will eventually reduce personnel numbers (and budgets). To cover the activities of 10,676 athletes from 202 countries, 1,033 photographers were accredited, along with 3,272 members of the writing press. According to the IOC, the number of staff accredited to the Athens Olympic Broadcasters (AOB) (with NBC as the rights-holder) is 15,546. They occupied the International Broadcast Center and littered every venue with cranes, transmission trucks, plenty of cables, switchboards and tracking cameras on rails.

Leading the pack of photojournalists, the big agencies - AP, AFP and Reuters - came to Athens in usual strength: about 50 photographers and half that number of editorial staff each. They could send one photographer each to the fixed IOPP (International Olympic Photo Pool) and other priority positions. Alongside the IOPP photographers, those with Getty Images (formerly Allsport) and the sports federations had the same privileges. There was no National Olympic Photo Pool in Greece. There will be one in Beijing, headed by Xin Hua Agency.

There have also been fatalities which are part of the Olympic records: 13 workmen died in accidents on Olympic building sites, official sources say. Other sources list 10 more fatalities of accident victims who later died in hospitals.

Three journalists died while covering the Athens Games: A Chinese cameraman, Chang Lei (43) from Beijing, died from heatstroke as he was filming the last leg of the Olympic flame. A Korean newsman drowned on Aug. 20 and a Russian cameraman, aged 74 and not yet identified, died while working at a venue on Aug. 28.

Platypus Was Not Accredited

The traditional IOC rule, stating that only the moving pictures rights-holder (again, in Athens, NBC and associate broadcasters) can record the Games for TV and radio broadcasts, applied. Platypus operators would have been barred; there were none asking for accreditation. AP and Reuters Television News also remained excluded.

A discussion about whether or not rapid-sequence still photos could be used for the simulation of an athlete's movement on a Web site ended with the warning that if the originator intends to create a moving image, this would violate IOC rules and get the lawyers involved.

Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneer who experimented in the photography of motion in the late-19th century, would most likely not have been accredited for the modern Games of the IOC.

Massive Athens Security

Security to prevent terrorism had a major impact on the conduct of the Games. Olympic journalists are by now used to press villages that are fenced in like detention camps, intensive equipment - and body searches to enter any Olympic installation and the isolation from "the real people outside the fence." Athens 2004 was as huge a security operation as an Olympic event. Official word was that about 70,000 Greek police and armed forces troops were involved. Since a Greek law from 1974 does not permit soldiers to carry weapons in public - a result of the 1967 military coup - special legislation had to be passed to arm the soldiers, who very discreetly guarded Athens. The only foreign soldiers in Greece - well out of sight - were from a Czech NATO unit specializing in bacteriological and chemical warfare. Except for patrolling helicopters and a few police observation airships leisurely cruising above in the blue sky, Athens airspace was free of airplanes. The Greek Air Force Mirage fighters on patrol were out of sound and sight. Patriot missile launchers were visible at the airport and around the city.

It was another of the "Wonders of Athens" to experience the quietly spoken, ever-smiling police. It was difficult to be angry even when they insisted on passing wristwatches, suspenders and belts through the X-ray machine.

Fortunately, they did not remember the shoe bomber. Although some anti-American manifestations were expected (a large majority of Greeks have been and still are opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq), nothing had happened (except for a few false alarms) as this diary was written. But some demonstrations took place as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived to attend the closing ceremony. He cancelled his visit the day before the finale.

Photo Chief Delivers New Photo Positions

As the Games progressed, it became evident that still photographers had more and better positions than at past Games. Their images are the proof. The very diplomatic and ever-available, amiable Athens 2004 Chief of

Photography, Konstantinos Nikiforos - a Greek fashion and portraiture photographer who had studied political science and now usually lives in Paris - managed in three years of delicate negotiations with the IOC, the television and broadcast rights-holders (who always prefer to keep still photographers out of sight), the sports federations and the security authorities to improve working conditions and positions at almost all sports venues.

Nikiforos' recipe was close cooperation with the agency representatives and very detailed briefings for the venue photo chiefs, the security organs and almost anybody else who was about to encounter photographers. Forty of the 44 venue photo chiefs were Greeks.

Reuters' Kevin Coombs and AP's Bud Weydert, both in charge of setting up coverage for their agencies, made an all-Olympics record of 15 visits to Athens.

"Konstantinos listened to all our suggestions to wire up the traditional and many new photo positions. He then went to the IOC, the sports federations and security and slowly, slowly achieved what we asked for. A very good job. It took years," said Kevin Coombs. The climate of total cooperation was passed on to the venues. Photographers were generally happier than ever. Mark Duncan (AP), covering diving, reported: "George Kostos, the diving photo chief, has been tireless getting us better photo positions, sometimes creating them just before the event. He negotiated successfully with television, who'd rather see no photographers."

Nikiforos' experiments and more and improved photo positions at Athens 2004 resulted in a surprisingly fresh photo report of the Olympic mega-routines. The agencies of the IOPP (International Olympic Photo Pool - AP, AFP and Reuters) had distributed well over 40,000 images even before the closing ceremony and it was never dull to edit and sort the photo flood.


At most venues catwalks were installed from which photographers could shoot unusual and exciting overhead views. At the Olympic stadium the catwalk was over 50 meters high (165 feet). It required the daring of a mountain climber and no fear of heights to work from such positions. Already on the first day, a French photographer froze in panic and had to be evacuated by specially trained helpers after the event. Security men roped in photographers and equipment to prevent any object (and bodies) from falling. No loose items, mobile phones, food and drink were permitted on the catwalk and only one camera and lens were allowed. Photo marshals supplied safety harnesses. Photographers had to sign a 17-point, two-page "Photographer's Catwalk Policy" with strict risk management terms and conditions.

The most-often used catwalks were at the venues for diving, boxing, judo and wrestling, volleyball, table tennis and basketball, weightlifting, rhythmic gymnastics and at the Olympic Stadium, each one providing previously unseen Olympic vistas. The temperature at some of these positions was near-sizzling point as floodlights were nearby. At the baseball venue, an elevated position was next to the lights; at the swimming site, photographers had access to positions on the roof and near the lights. At the velodrome, a fixed gondola provided high-up views.

Access to the catwalks was regulated by priorities, with the IOPP agencies up first, then Getty Images, Sports Illustrated, etc. Until the last day, no incidents or accidents were reported. The very flexible venue photo manager seemed to satisfy everybody.

Michael Phelps of the US swims to a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the Olympic Aquatic Centre during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, 20 August 2004.

Underwater Photography

Underwater cameras with remote control could be used for the swimming contests, diving and synchronized swimming - a first for Olympic Games. After some back and forth, the IOPP (International Olympic Photographic Pool - AP, AFP, Reuters), Sports Illustrated, Getty Images (Allsport) and Newsweek had their cameras installed at the bottom of the pools. Scuba-diving AP photographer Mark Terrill was brought in from Los Angeles with the technology he knows well and, after some trial and error, flash pictures of swimming star Michael Phelps and others moved on the "wires." At first the disks had to be removed from the camera after races; later, wireless transmission worked off and on.

Dedicated Workspace for Photographers

At all stadia ample workspace and lockers were reserved for photographers - and workstations were considerably larger than those for the writers.

The agency photo editors at the main stadia (athletics, swimming, gymnastics) or those assigned to the finals of other sports - editors who deal with their photographers' thousands of images each day and each event - found themselves not buried in underground parking lots or toilets, but in air-conditioned pressrooms. The images from each photographer reached the 17-inch laptop computers with which they worked either by wireless transmission (often with interference - a still-dodgy technology), hard-wire fiber-optic cables or the occasional disk-bearing Olympic messenger. The good working conditions made it possible to staff the main stadia with enough editors to swiftly file directly via satellite to all and selected subscribers around the world.

Remote Control Positions

Photographers were at liberty to install many more remote-controlled camera positions than ever before. Some were fixed to the catwalks. For the traditionally crowded 100m finish line, scores of remote cameras were lined up, leaving the men's 100m winner to wave to a lineup of unmanned cameras on the ground. AP's Anja Niedringhaus operated one camera by hand and three remotes by toe-tip during this event.

Cameras and Technology at the Games

Olympic Games have always been a yardstick for the best technology in photojournalism. In Athens, Canon cameras and technology were definitely preferred. The Canon Mark 2, with up to eight pictures per second, is - at this time - the preferred tool.

Luca Bruno (AP, Milan) said, "After working for 23 years with another camera, this Mark 2 seems from another planet. With the frame speed it was quite easy and enjoyable to cover very different sports."

AP photo editor Bob Daugherty (from the Washington- based AP State Photo Center), who dealt with swimming and athletics, observed: "The quality of images from the Mark 2 surprised us. It is simply amazing how a small, cropped detail can be made easily usable. We were able to get quality that would have been impossible with film and we could use image crops that would have fallen apart from film."

The volume produced by any agency team covering a major sport is breathtaking. Editors may have to handle five to six thousand images during a session - which means editor teams of up to six are needed to handle athletics swiftly, or four at swimming. As they are filing straight to the satellite, the report must (or should) be error-proof. As a result, the big agencies (AP, AFP, Reuters) each filed about 1,200 pictures a day worldwide or to regional points - a 100 percent increase over Sydney, 200 percent over Atlanta. Getty Images filed even more.

Will there be room for improvements the next time around in Beijing 2008?

Kevin Coombs (Reuters) thinks that the agencies should stand firm to keep up the standards set by Athens 2004. "We should make even more detailed plans to wire up all photographic positions (with fiber-optic cables) that

don't bother the federations or security. We saw in Athens that photographers run around much less when they have filing points at their position. We could do even better in Beijing."

Photo Chief Konstantinos Nikiforos agrees: "The agencies should start working as soon as Athens is over with the Chinese Organizing Committee to hard-wire every pool position. There will be extra pressure because the Chinese insist on a strong National (Olympic) Photo Pool (NOPP)."

Wireless transmission is considered by many to be a technology too dodgy for mega events like the Olympic Games. "There are not enough wireless channels and some agencies are disadvantaged when they cannot get a channel allotted. We also experienced too much interference. It's a chancy way to transmit," one technician said.

Groups of serious-looking, crew-cut Chinese were seen during the last days of the Games being shown around the stadia and the MPC by official guides of the fading Athens 2004. In their minds, they undoubtedly were trying to envision the ultimately perfect Olympics.

Some Complaints - Stop Biting the Medal

Overwhelmed by the flood of pictures and many new angles, unseen at previous Olympic Games, photo editors had no major complaints. They agree that while there have been no great pictures, there have been many, many very good ones. However, they too have a wish list for Beijing. Steve Crisp (Reuters Photos) would like to see better backgrounds. A clean background is preferred - too many blue-white "Athens 2004" banners made too many pictures look similar in Athens. Crisp also observed that large sections of usually empty VIP seats in the stands of each stadium did not make a good background and falsely implied that the stadium was empty.

After some photographers joined the discussion, all agreed that somebody should tell the athletes to stop biting their medals. Some years back the gimmick of medal-biting started during a Winter Olympic Games. "It's time to stop that. Less pictures - and less silly pictures at that - would be an improvement," somebody said.

A Cuisine "Which Disgraced Greece"

Photographers and editors also need to eat, and what they got to eat in Athens seemed to have pleased nobody. At the Olympic canteens it was all paper plates and wooden or plastic cutlery. Little collapsible spoons were doll-house size. No hot breakfast, but bread rolls that felt like deflated tennis balls. The self-service canteens served a bland, overcooked fare, the type U.S. soldiers would be served in the field. Greek delicacies were absent or unrecognizable. There wasn't even Greek wine until the last days. "The food is a disgrace for Greece," said senior photo editor Dimitri Messinis and even the photo chief of Athens 2004 agreed. The fast food of sponsor McDonald's was mostly ignored by the Europeans; Americans still consider McDonald's like home.

The relentless Olympic program, starting at dawn and extending until midnight for 14 solid days, did not give photojournalists the time to explore the many lovely old restaurants at the foot of the Acropolis. Instead, they ventured outside the Olympic security zone to find little neighborhood tavernas near the MPC which did not expect them - but soon came up with English-language menus. The Chinese from Xin Hua Agency and Peking Daily managed to bring Chinese takeout food, along with chopsticks, into the MPC. The smells of Chinese chicken noodles with soya competed with the pungent smell of Kimchi rising above the partitions of Korean newspaper offices nearby.

Hot Like in Baghdad

Photographers had to work under burning sunlight and in temperatures that often reached 40 C (104 F) and more. "It's nice, sunny and warm, almost like in Baghdad," an Iraq veteran said. "I wish they would design a photographer's vest for Beijing that isn't as heavy, long and dark as the one we got here. They are almost like flak jackets." He, like many others, simply cut the photo jackets off above the waist.

Photo Jackets for Security Agents

As soon as competition had begun, IOPP photographers reported that strange colleagues, wearing the photographers' vests but without cameras, mingled with them on the field. They turned out to be security personnel who were allotted a stack of the numbered vests, which should have been reserved for working press photographers. "This is unprecedented and unacceptable," wrote Bob Sullivan (AFP), head of Athens 2004's IOPP. "We cannot condone any security, police, military personnel wearing any type of media accreditation or insignia." An IOC official replied: "They may have every right to be there, but it is against the Olympic Charter and the IOC Media Guide for them to be there as photographers. I am sure it will not repeat itself." Chinese organizers, please take note.


And what happened to film? Down in the bowels of the Main Press Center (MPC), Kodak had set up a film processing center. Kodak's guests were Canon and Nikon (who are not sponsors). It was thus convenient for photographers to find the big camera manufacturers and Kodak in the same MPC basement. Just how many rolls of film were shot by genuine press photographers at the Games and submitted to Kodak for processing is a closely-guarded Kodak secret. "It is 30 percent film and 70 percent digital." Kodak executives may rethink the purposes of their sponsorship agreement with the IOC.

© Horst Faas

Horst Faas, 71, now retired after a lifetime with The Associated Press, has covered Olympic Summer and Winter Games since 1972. In Athens he worked as a photo editor in the International Olympic Photo Pool (IOPP). He gave us his assessment of Athens 2004, the Olympic Summer Games, August 13 - August 29.