In all the years I worked at Sports Illustrated I was very fortunate to have been able to photograph most every sporting event. To this day, it seems I always get asked the same two questions. The first one is always, "How many times did you work on the swim suit issue?" (and before I even got the chance to answer I'd get bonus questions. What were the models like? Which one was your favorite?) The other question I get is: How did you do the Ben Johnson pic at the Seoul Olympics? Well, unfortunately, I never worked the swim suit assignment so no stories to tell there. But I can tell you about the Ben Johnson image.
I wasn't assigned to the 100 meter finals at the Olympics but the morning of the race I got a call to go out to the track with the rest of the SI team. All the positions had already been given out so I'm told "just find a spot." I wander up toward the start and see David Burnett (who is without a doubt one of the great photographers of any generation), Dave was shooting for Time Magazine. I thought, "Hey, if its good enough Dave, it's good enough for me." After settling into the photo mote, an area along the track where we shot from, I began to think about what to do. It was at least 4 or 5 hours before the finals were to go off. I had always thought about doing a pan shot but the 100 meter final at the Olympics might not have been the best time to try a shot I'd never done before.
Now the key part was who to go with at the start. Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson were the two clear favorites with Johnson in the center lane. I went back and forth on who to go with, finally settling on Johnson who I had worked with a few months prior up in Toronto where he was training.
I decided to go with a 300mm lens on a Nikon camera; there was no such thing as auto-focus back in the day. I believe I shot at 5.6 at 125th of a second.
The race is finally ready to go off and I'm thinking this is a pretty stupid idea! But too late now, besides we have 6 others shooting so if I screw up who's to know. The gun fires, and I pan. I can clearly see Ben Johnson is in the lead as they pass me. It all happens in about 2 seconds. I think I made 3 or 4 frames.
We now wait because it's going to be hours before the film will be processed and edited. Late that evening I check in with the SI editors and Phil Jache informs me I nailed it! The cover and opening spread; I feel great about it. If Carl Lewis had been in the lead I would have had nothing and wouldn't be writing about this.
At about 2 am, I get another call that Johnson has been busted on drugs and is leaving Seoul. "Get out to the airport and find him," Phil says. My good friend John Iacono is also to go along. We get to the airport--not very hard to find Johnson as every news organization in the world is following him.We make a few pictures, check back in and find out one of us is to buy a ticket and fly back with him to the States. I'm really glad my passport was in my other pants. That's my story and I'm stick'n to it! Poor Johnny was on the red eye back.
With the news of Johnson's drug bust, I was sure they would go another direction with the cover. But they didn't. Ben Johnson was the lead story. To this day when I speak to Dave he'll say, "That was a great decision."
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