As I waited to board my plane to Sochi a month ago, I overheard an American ask his friend if this was his first time in Sochi. He said yes. “Four weeks in Sochi is like four years anywhere else,” replied the American. How true this turned out to be. But I didn’t know it yet.
It was my first Olympics. I had been assigned the role of sports photographer for a broadcasting company. My brief was to take photos of the athletes in action for their online video player throughout the Games. As an amateur photographer, this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss out on. Unlimited access to the Olympic venues, a chance to meet the athletes, hobnob with photographers from around the world. Who would say no?
Regardless of the terrorist threats, lack of snow and rumours that nothing was ready, I climbed aboard that flight to Sochi and spent the past six weeks in Russia. So, what was it like?
Interestingly, the Sochi Winter Olympics weren’t actually held in Sochi. The events were spilt between the Olympic Park in Adler near the coast and Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, which was an hour’s bus ride away. The resort was entirely purpose built for the Olympics. Everything from the shops and restaurants to roads and sewage system was non-existent two years ago. When you take into account how much has been created, you can see exactly where that £30 billion was spent. The sporting venues themselves were immaculate. A little behind schedule but come the first event, the paths were freshly gravelled, seating fully installed and pistes primed to go. My personal favourite was the Sanki Sliding Centre, where the luge, bobsleigh and skeleton is held. Apparently Amy Williams herself said the ice here was perfect.
One thing I didn’t realise before I arrived in Sochi was just how much hard work it was going to be. I worked 26 days straight with no days off. You start at 8am and don’t finish until midnight. You’re expected to cover up to three sessions a day, so that means getting to the venue early to get a good position, climbing up the side of the pistes, waiting for the athletes to begin, snapping away, climbing down, editing and filing the photos in the media centre, before hopping on a bus to the next venue to the repeat the process again.
The photo positions are limited, so there can be quite a bit of argy bargy between photographers. I nearly saw a punch up on the cross-country finish line after a photographer stole another photographer’s position that he’d reserved with a rucksack. By the last week, everyone was getting ill. Late nights, bad food and lots of walking up and down the sides of pistes is a recipe for sickness. Overall, working the Olympics was the most intense stint of work I’ve ever done, but a hell of a lot better than a week in the office.
Contrary to popular belief, Russia isn’t cold. I’m sure you’ve already heard, Sochi was hot. Like t-shirt hot. They day I left, it was a balmy 16°C up in the mountains. After all, it’s not Siberia – it’s only a stone’s throw from Turkey. Winter sports doesn’t mix well with warm weather. The result was a lot of pissed off athletes and some serious fears that the snow would melt away before the events were finished. I saw some concerned faces on the FIS officials faces, but luckily the snow just about held out.
Despite the snow fears, the events themselves went down a storm. The crowds were mostly Russians who went wild every time a native athlete competed, chanting “RU-SI-YA!” at the top of their lungs. Every event is timed to the minute. Some were delayed because of heavy fog, but generally they ran like clockwork. There was some amazing photo finishes, plenty of wince-worthy crashes particularly in the women’s snowboard cross, and some teary flower ceremonies. I even accidentally ended up in the middle of Lizzie Yarnold’s family as she crossed the finish line and won gold. It was emotional to say the least.
Being there made me realise how crucial commentary is to a sports event. When you’re sat on the side of the piste, it’s silent. No commentary, only the cheers of the crowds in the distance. Even when you’re metres away from the action, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. My mum sat at home watching the Games on BBC Two definitely had a better grasp of the overall competition than I did.
When you watch the Olympics on TV, everything seems so far removed and dramatic. When you’re actually there, you realise that it’s an incredibly tight-knit group of athletes, broadcasters, journalists and photographers. Everyone knows everyone. I met British skiier James Woods on the side of the piste checking out the slopestyle snowboard practice, Ski Sunday presenter Ed Leigh on the media bus and bronze snowboard medallist Jenny Jones at the Team GB after-party the night she won her medal.
One of my favourite encounters was with an Italian sports photographer called Giuliano who was on his 24th Olympics. 12 Summer and 12 Winter Olympics. He’s now nearly 70-years-old and he’s still hiking up slopes and jumping into photo pits with all the photographers. He told me he liked the early Olympics the most, “because I was young then!” I asked him where he’s off to next. He said the World Cup in Rio later this year. I mention that England aren’t likely to do very well, even though we’re always hoping for a re-run of 1966 – does he remember that? “Oh yes,” he says, “I was there.”
Nina Zietman is contributing editor at Whitelines Snowboarding magazine. Read more at: ninazietman.com