Iconic Photos

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David Burnett on Mary Decker’s Fall

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Olympics Games have their controversial moments (Personally I am going to be bitching about this year’s biking commissars for decades to come). Iconic Photos has looked back at one of them here before; now it’s time to let its photographer reflect: 


I don’t think there’s going to be many more. Not that there won’t be good pictures taken. But we are in an age of visual overload. I don’t think there’s going to be another Olympic picture that is going to get that kind of run.

I’d been shooting track for a whole week from a lot of different locations, up high and low, but a lot of it from the finish line. I was just so tired of standing next to these guys that had these big tripods with 11 cameras attached to them and remote wires going up to cameras with 400-millimeter lenses — I needed a breath of fresh air. I picked up my stuff and walked down the track. There were two photographers sitting at one bench, next to where the crowd was, and a spot for somebody else.

The 3,000 final came up. This was the big race of the week: Mary Decker would win the gold medal that had been denied her when the U.S. decided to skip [the previous] games. The other big story was Zola Budd, running barefoot, who couldn’t run for South Africa because it was banned from international competition.

The 3,000 is seven-and-a-half laps, and I had a really good shot of turn four with a 400-millimeter lens.

As Zola makes her move, around the fifth lap I shoot with the 400, then pick up the 85 as they start to go by me. Zola tries to pass Mary. Mary comes down hard, trips and falls over the edge.

Thing is, I couldn’t tell in detail what was going on, but I know what’s supposed to happen,  that they’re going to run through my frame and keep going. And I’m seeing that Mary is not doing that, and I look down after I’ve shot some frames with the 85. And I see her lying there, and I immediately grab the 400, brought that up to my eye and I honestly remember taking an extra millisecond saying to myself, “Make sure you’re sharp.” I kind of focused on her eye, and I made seven or eight frames.

The nurse came over, Mary was kind of laying down, and then there’s that one frame where she’s looking down the track. It’s one of those things that I just got lucky, and I didn’t screw up. It’s about being lucky and not screwing up, and trying to be ready for some moment if you happen to be the right place.

Since his debut in that 1984 Los Angeles Games, David Burnett has photographed eight summer Olympics, including London. Read the rest of his interview here.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

One Response

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  1. its good, but I can’t imagine at an olympics that there weren’t at least 20 photogs. who had a similar shot

    Charlie Scholz

    August 8, 2012 at 12:38 am

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