Throwback Thursday: Los Angeles Olympic Games

Thirty years ago this week, Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games which to this day remains one of my all-time favorite assignments…

Rick Rickman, Hal Stoelze and I made up the Orange County Register’s three-photographer team. Our competition, the Los Angeles Times, had 28 photo credentials. There was absolutely no way the three of us could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them them everywhere they’d be. But there was an upside to this. It left us free to do what we did best – improvise.

It was a classic David-versus-Goliath story. And it’s always much more fun to be David…

When covering a major sporting event like the Olympics, there’s a lot to be said for standing away from the pack. The Register’s director of photography, Ron Mann, encouraged us to take chances and to “swing for the fences.” Rather than settling for the safe shot, we should pick the vantage points our gut told us could pay off.

Brian Smith Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the Olympic Stepplechase
Nikon F3T | Nikkor 18mm F3.5 AI-S | 1/500 sec | F8 | Fujichrome 100D

A couple of my favorite shots from the games wasn’t taken from the photo pit – but from the grandstands.

At the men’s gymnastics rings competition, I could have played it safe, shooting from the photo pit with a 100 or 135mm lens like everyone else, but I noticed an empty aisle seat a few rows up in the stands that was the perfect spot to shoot with a massive ultra-fast 300mm/F2 lens.

Holding focus with that lens was extremely tricky as it was a manual focus lens with only a few inches of depth of field at that distance, but I figured that was just the kind of risk Ron encouraged us to take. It paid off with a shot of USA gymnast Tim Daggett’s emotional dismount from the rings that helped pave the way to USA Team Gold.

USA Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Tim Daggett photographed by Brian Smith
Nikon F3T | Nikkor 300mm F2.0 EDIF | 1/500 sec | F2.0 | Ektachrome 160T pushed +2 Stops

I got my break in photography as a high school swimmer when I began shooting our meets for my hometown paper. One of the first things I learned was that the backstroke looked much better from a high angle where you could actually see their faces.

When the 100-meter backstroke rolled around, I left my spot poolside and headed to the cheap seats.

From the very top row of empty bleachers at the top of the grandstands, I shot swimmers hitting the water in unison while all looking up to the sky.

1984 Olympic Backstroke photographed by Brian Smith
Nikon F3T | Nikkor 300mm F2.8 EDIF | 1/500 sec | F8 | Fujichrome 100D
American Swimmers win gold at 1984 Los Angeles Olympics photographed by Brian Smith
Nikon F3T | Nikkor 600mm F4 EDIF | 1/500 sec | F6.3 | Fujichrome 100D

Our work days during the Olympics averaged 18 hours – yet I’ve never had more fun. The spectacle and emotion of the Games were unlike any experiences I’ve had in the 30 years since. Getting away from the pack paid off when we took home the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for our coverage of the games.

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2 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Los Angeles Olympic Games”

  1. I remember these well. I was on my first newspaper gig in Ogden Utah and we looked at your coverage with awe! Not sure if you remember but you spoke at Utah State University and actually critiqued a project I was working on at the time on migrant workers and you made some great suggestions as to what you felt needed to be added.

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