David Burnett on Mary Decker’s Fall

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.

Byun Jong-il | Seoul 1988

Last night’s events on the fencing piste and a cascade of NBC’s failures recall a particularly unsavory controversy 24 years earlier. 

People criticize the Olympic Games for being showy and expensive, and indeed, their legacies are often mixed. Sometimes, they bring some benefits: in 1987, faced with protests calling for democracy, South Korea’s ruling junta gave in, to prevent spoiling the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics.

When the games came, however, this euphoria was dampened — not least by the opening ceremony conducted in scotching summer midday heat when doves released were burnt to crisp by the Olympic flame (yes that happened). Soon, more devastatingly, allegations of match-fixing swirled, culminating with the Korean boxer Byun Jong-il setting the dubious of Olympic records for a sit-down protest.

The bantamweight boxer lost a close decision when he was penalized two points for head butts. After the match, several Korean boxing officials entered the ring, threw chairs at and punched the New Zealand referee. But that was just the beginning of a 67 minute sit-down protest by Byun. He stayed there for so long that officials eventually turned off the lights and left him in darkness.

As tactful and considerate as ever, NBC followed the entire protest, even using split screens to show the boxer in the ring during other events. Their coverage, as well as those of American newspapers which termed Byun “petulant”, caused a huge uproar in South Korea, where relationships were already strained by the presence of American bases and by the US Olympians’ roudy partying. The Dong-A Ilbo, a leading daily, wrote “This is a bad omen for future Korean-American relations. The American press has to know that this kind of distorted reporting is hurting the dignity of Korean people”. Strong editorials denounced US and Japanese print media, while even the Korean government officials denounced the coverage as unfair and insensitive. Soon afterwards, the NBC staff ordered not to wear their logos lest they be attacked.

The Koreans insisted that Byun did the right thing by sitting down and protesting a decision he didn’t agree with, but it transpired that the protest had equally to do with surprise as with disappointment. He had been secretly promised a medal by the South Korean authorities who had many shady dealings in rigging boxing. In an equally shocking final of the light-middleweight division, Roy Jones Jr. lost to Park Si-Hun, even though Jones completely demolished the South Korean, who had arrived to the final with five(!) consecutive disputed victories.

(Seoul’s corruptions got an entire chapter in the go-to book on Olympic corruption, The New Lords of the Rings.)

Jesse Owens

Hitler used the 1936 Olympics as a propaganda tool, inadvertently creating the modern Games, complete with torch relays, grand stadiums, publicity films and screens set up outside to transmit the Games. What the Nazis couldn’t stage-manage were the outcomes, and wonderful story of Jesse Owens smashing Hitler’s theories of racial superiority on the 100m sprint is an oft repeated story. (Enthusiastic crowd reaction on this clip suggests that the German people are less Aryan-obsessed than Hitler.Although his coach warned Owens about a potentially hostile crowd, there were German cheers of “Yesseh Oh-vens” or just “Oh-vens” from the crowd. Owens was a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by autograph seekers.)

It is oft mentioned that the Nazi leader refused to present Jesse Owens with his medal, shake his hand and subsequently stormed out of the stadium. However, Hitler was not even in the stadium when Jesse Owens was securing his medals, and his absence was more to do with his row with the Olympic organizers than with Owens . Hitler had congratulated German athletes on the first day, only to be informed by the IOC officials that he should congratulate all athletes or none, in order to show neutrality as the presiding head of state. In a characteristic fit of petulance, Hitler refused congratulate anyone after the first day of the competition, not even the German athletes. (Hitler did snub a black American athlete on the first day; just before Cornelius Johnson was to be decorated, Hitler left the stadium.)

Jesse Owens tried his best to correct the myth-making that went on around him: he admitted that he received the greatest ovations of his career at Berlin. he recalled:  “When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing [Hitler] …. Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram”. Such was an atmosphere of segregation back in the U.S. that Owens was never invited to the White House to be congratulated. When there was a ticker-tape parade in New York in his honour, he had to attend the reception at the Waldorf-Astoria using the back elevator set aside for blacks. (Even in Berlin, he was allowed to travel and stay together with whites).

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics

They say modern Olympics began in 1896 with Pierre de Coubertin. In fact, the Olympics as we know it today began in 1992 Barcelona. Before Barcelona, the public interest in the games had been pretty low. For instance, Los Angeles had been the only bidder for the 1984 Games. However, LA’s commercial success made the next bidding process, in 1986, hotly contested. Barcelona beat Paris, Belgrade, Brisbane, Amsterdam and Birmingham (?!)  to host the Games. With the fall of the Soviet Union, its athletic hegemony too was gone, with many newly independent states from the former USSR and Yugoslavia participating as independent states. (Many CIS states participated under the banner of the United Team.) With the Iron Curtain and the Apartheid gone, Germany and South Africa returned to the games.

Also, the 1992 Games mark the beginning of the flamboyant opening torch ignitions that has been the Olympic norm since. An archer who competed in the Paralympic Games, Antonio Rebollo lit the flame by firing a burning arrow towards the cauldron. Well, actually he didn’t, but it seemed he did. Rebollo was instructed to overshoot the cauldron for safety measures (although shooting a flaming arrow into the Barcelona night sky isn’t probably that much safer), and the cauldron was gradually releasing fuel into the air, so when the flaming arrow passed over it, it ignited itself, tricking the eye.

Some 200 archers were initially chosen based on three criteria: they must have no fear of fire; must be able to use an ancient-style wooden bow (without modern sighting devices); and they must already be precise enough to shoot from a distance of about 100 steps. To keep the ceremony a secret, they could not practice in the main Olympic stadium, and trained secretly on a hillside nearby in the early hours when no one was around. For ten months, there were sunrise practices with actually flaming arrows which singed fingers and machines that simulated various weather conditions and crowds. Four finalists were kept until just two hours prior to the ignition, lest an accident would occur (with flaming arrows, they usually do). But Rebollo was not appreciated: he later complained to a Spanish newspaper that he received no official accreditation or tickets to see any of the events, not even the archery!

Greg Louganis smashes his head

As last week’s tragic luge incident showed us, the Olympics are never free from mishaps. Yet, Vancouver seems to be leading the competition: the Olympic torch malfunctioned and it was fenced off from the public, prompting a headline, “Mr. Furlong, tear down this fence!“. Warm weather caused a lot of trouble while millions of tickets were cancelled.

Probably not as bad as 1996 Games in Atlanta though, when overloaded trains and traffic jams kept athletes and journalists from getting to the events. Many Olympic bus drivers quit while various teams moved out of the Olympic village. Heat, lack of air-condition (even inside the subway) and water created hell for visitors, while various escalators broke down.  The city demanded the computer provider, IBM, to use ‘proven’ technology–i.e., technology that is more than 2 years only–which led to massive computer glitches. It described an Angolan basketball player as three feet tall and another gymnast was 97 years old. It was so poorly managed that France-Soir noted: “Africa has been deprived of the Games since their creation with the pretext that African countries don’t have the necessary infrastructure. After Atlanta, any country in the world can apply to host the Games.” In his closing speech, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch described the Atlanta Games as “most exceptional”, an ambivalent departure from traditionally speech that has to describe the Games he was closing as the “best ever”.

Perhaps the most famous olympic mishap was at Seoul Olympics in 1988. Normally during an opening ceremony, white doves are released, but during the Seoul opening ceremony, a few of them settled in the cauldron that housed the Olympic flame as it was being lit. (This caused the cancellation of the dove-releasing tradition). Also in 1988, US diver Greg Louganis smashed his head on the board on his ninth preliminary springboard dive, while attempting a 2½ somersault pike. He received stitches before completing his tenth dive. He overcame the head injury to gain the highest score in the preliminaries and qualify for the final and wins a gold medal in Seoul. This extraordinary come-back made Louganis “Athlete of the Year” for ABC. In 1995, it was revealed that Louganis had been HIV positive at the time of the accident and had not informed the doctor treating him for the head injury. The doctor subsequently tested negative for HIV.

Kozakiewicz’s gesture

So I was reading this strange article by Christopher Hitchens (who else?) while I saw this photo.

The 1980 Summer Olympic Games were already mired by controversy even before they opened. The United States led the boycott of 64 other countries in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They instead participated in the Olympic Boycott Games or the “Liberty Bell Classic” in Philadelphia, which opened 3 days before the actual games. Fifteen other countries (mainly European) that participated did so under the Olympic Flag instead of their national flags. The Olympic Flag and Hymn were used at Medal Ceremonies when athletes from these countries won medals. The Soviet television alternately ignored and criticized this.

After setting a new world record on July 30th, Polish pole vaulter Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz made a rude gesture (bras d’honneur) to the hostile, jeering Moscow crowd. The crowd was rooting for Soviet jumper Konstantin Volkov. The image was seen around the world except ironically in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. To many, it signified Polish resentment of Russia’s control over Eastern Europe; in Poland, the gesture became immediately known as Kozakiewicz’s gesture. (gest Kozakiewicza).

After the Olympics, the Soviet ambassador to Poland demanded that Kozakiewicz be stripped of his medal over his “insult to the Soviet people”. The official response of the Polish government was that the gesture had been an involuntary muscle spasm caused by his exertion. Kozakiewicz for his part promptly defected to West Germany.

The Fall of Mary Decker


It was the Olympic running’s most controversial moment since Jesse Owens. At the women’s 3,000m final at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, two top runners, American Mary Decker and South African Zola Budd bumped into each other twice.

Budd was slightly in front, and at the second bump, Decker’s spikes caught Budd’s heel. Budd was, as usual, running barefoot. Her left leg shot out as she stumbled, tripping Decker. The American pitched forward and crashed to the floor on the infield grass, clutching her right thigh. She was unable to get up and was carried from the track in tears, her race over. This moment was dramatically captured in David Burnett’s (for Sports Illustrated) photos reproduced again and again.

For Zola, already reviled for being South African in an Olympic shadowed by Apartheid, the race was over too. She managed to skirt the Olympic ban against South Africa by competing for Britain, receiving accelerated citizenship because she had a British grandfather. Now, the crowd’s hostile reaction so unnerved the 18-year-old world-record holder that she could only finish seventh. However, the crowd (and we today) only vaguely remember who won that day (Maricica Puica of Romania); the moment have been shown on television from every angle in an attempt to decide which athlete was to blame.

At a news conference after the race, a tearful Mary Decker told journalists, “Zola tried to cut in without being far enough ahead. There was no question but that she was in the wrong.” Track officials disagreed; after initially disqualifying Budd for obstruction, she was reinstated an hour later once officials had viewed films of the race. Budd said she tried to apologise to Decker in the tunnel leading away from the track after the race, but was told abruptly, “Don’t bother.”

Despite her famous mishap and future doping incidents, Decker set 36 U.S. and 17 world records during her career and is considered one of America’s greatest woman athletes. Budd too continued to compete in Britain for another four years, but could never shake off the political controversy, nor overcome criticism over the Decker incident. Reluctant to meddle in politics, she ignored calls to renounce apartheid until her biography, “Zola,” appeared in 1989. In the ensuing years, two women competed against each other; Zola Budd describes Decker’s position as“ she’s forgiven me, but she still blames me.”



Wottle’s Olympic Run


Despite the Games’ objectives to promote brotherhood and peace among man, every Olympic game during the Cold War was beset with political statements and rivalries. The ’72 Munich Games were no different.

On the athletic track, the reigning champion was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union, who had not lost an 800-m final in four years. His unlikely defeat came in the hands–or rather by foot–of American Dave Wottle, a slight 22-year old from Ohio who emerged as a dark horse. Although lagging in the sixth place  behind leaders Michael Boit and Robert Ouko, both from Kenya, Wottle moved up to the second place as the Kenyans flagged and Arzhanov assumed the first place. With just 18 m before the finish, Wottle pushed ahead of Arzhanov, who stumbled and fell 2 m short of the tape, giving Wottle the victory.

Wottle was so stunned by his win that he forgot to remove his battered old golf cap during the medal ceremony. Taken aback by a reporter asking whether keeping the cap on was a protest against the Vietnam War, Wottle made a formal apology to the American people. In 1977, the cap was placed in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame; three years later, Wottle himself was inducted to the Hall of Fame. As he later joked, “They wanted the hat before they wanted me.”

(Above, photo by Tony Triolo, Sports Illustrated).

Black Power Salute


“‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week,” wrote Time Magazine, which went onto call it “petty” and “petulant”.  Boxer George Foreman dismissed it as “That’s for college kids.” Brent Musburger called them “black-skinned storm troopers”. “The Soviet Union never has used the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes,” came a statement from Moscow.

Forty years on, the raised clenched fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won first and third places respectively in 1968 Olympic Games remain controversial. The protest photos were now inevitably labeled “black power” instead of “civil rights” Inside the arena in Mexico City the event passed quite unnoticed, but the newspaper photos reprinted in the next few days spread the debate.

Most famous of these photos was the one distributed by AP, taken by John Dominis, in which ironically, the viewer could not really make out the black socks two runners wore nor that they were shoeless — both acts meant to represent black poverty. Carlos’ beads, symbolizing black lynchings, however, were prominent. They shared right and left hands of the same pair of gloves because Carlos had forgotten his pair at the Olympic village.

Pressured by the International Olympic Committee which frown upon such displays of political statements (and which back then was ironically headed by an American named Avery Brundage who had been a Nazi sympathizer in his day), the American Team sent the pair packing home. The US cynically allowed them to retain their medals so they could count against the Russians on the final scoreboard. The silver medalist Peter Norman (Australia) who joined in the protest with a Human Rights badge on his track suit was also ostracized on his return home.

As for Smith and Carlos, they are now estranged, each claiming he was the mastermind behind the protest. Carlos went so far as to state that he let Smith win.

Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run

Despite being considered a successful Olympiad that set standards for subsequent games, the original London Olympics in 1908 were mired in controversy from the beginning– the American team refused to dip the flag before King Edward VII at the opening ceremony; their top runner was disqualified for obstructing the path of British runner Wyndham Halswelle, and for a re-run, the US track team walked out.

The games were never to be at London. It was passed from Rome to London after the 1906 eruption of Vesuvius forced Italy to relocate Olympic funds to rebuilding Naples. A stadium had to be hastily built at White City in west London for £44,000 next to the 1908 Franco-Britannic Exhibition. Everything was dismal — the lack of competitors meant the host nation taking a clean sweep in many sports, a medal record Britain would never match again. Swimming was conducted in muddy, murky outdoor waters. Less than remarkable games like tug-of-war and bicycle polo were introduced.

However, no match garnered more media attention than the notorious marathon. At the request of the King, the marathon started at Windsor Castle and ended right in front of a royal viewing box, adding additional 385 yards to the Classical marathon distance of 26 miles, and permanently altering the Olympic marathon distance. Its literal frontrunner was Italian confectioner named Dorando Pietri; Staggering through total exhaustion, Pietri won but was soon disqualified for receiving generous but misplaced assistance from two umpires, J.M. Andrew and M.J. Bulger seen above guiding him to the finishing line.

The games were already marred by the British referees, turning blind eye to many such infractions in the name of nonchalance, bonhomie, and amateur good fun. The American Olympic Committee once again complained loudly and their boy John Hayes indeed took home the gold medal. Widespread public sympathy however went to the Italian, who was presented with a specially commissioned Gold Trophy by Queen Alexandra. Arthur Conan Doyle took up his cause and raised money for Pietri to open his own pastry shop; Irving Berlin wrote an ode to him. In a rematch in Madison Square Garden, Pietri later beat Hayes. (See Telegraph)