Game Over at Sports Illustrated


Legend has it that Heinz Kluetmeier donned scuba gear and dove into the Olympic pool at a long-ago games and set up cameras on the bottom, wiring them so he could fire them remotely. His assistant asked him if they had permission to do this. “We’re not going to ask permission,” came the reply. No one was going to say no to Heinz. And because of that, an audacious act of brazen, lovely, break-the-rules attitude born of supreme photographic skills and confidence, millions of people have enjoyed stunning photographs. The epitome of sports photography – split-second photographs of the thrilling finishes of Olympic swimmers touching the wall for gold. Kluet’s famed pic, called “The Golden Touch,” shot from underwater, proved Michael Phelps had beaten Mirado Cavic of Serbia by .01 of a second. Typically of Heinz, afterward he simply called this astonishing frame of photography “improbable.”

Thankfully, Heinz passed on the know how and the guts to another generation who came along at SI. Bill Frakes, legendary among a variety of sports genres, became known for thrilling shots of close finishes at horse racing, taking the art and science of remote camera work to the next level of precision.

FYI, now, of course, underwater cameras, representing the major news agencies, are standard fare at every Games.

At the Ali-Cleveland Williams fight, Neil Leifer stashed a camera in the girders, looking straight down at the ring. A legendary picture was made, and after that, every boxing photog wanted to put a remote camera over the ring.

Such was the sway and swagger of Sports Illustrated, an enormously successful and powerful pinnacle of sports journalism. Beautiful, heartfelt, and incisive writing thrived on pages populated by some of most stunning sports images ever made. A potent mix of words and pictures. So potent it had a circulation of over a million. Think about it. So compelling was this magazine that a million plus people rushed to buy it so they could read about and see moments from GAMES THAT WERE ALREADY OVER. This occurred well before Ron Howard started directing movies.

The passing of this magazine caused me to reflect, and gather some photographic bits and pieces from years in the field for them. It was fun, wistful, and occasionally painful, as in, “I shoulda done better on that job….”

In a magazine run by word merchants, the stellar photography thrived. Not because many of the editors there understood or cared about photography. (“Why are these pictures so expensive to shoot?” was typical management reaction.) But they did know they desperately needed pictures. And amazing photos ensued, even if they were underplayed. Bill Eppridge famously referred to the magazine as “Spots Illustrated,” given the small size of many published photos that deserved more room on the page.

The legendary names associated with the magazine comprise a formidable list indeed. Zimmerman, Leifer, Cooke, Drake, Iooss, Kluetmeier, Frakes, Iacono, Tiedemann, Biever, Millan. (A partial list!) Photogs with smarts, experience, knowledge of the game being covered, and an almost preternatural ability to be in the right place, with the right lens, at the critical moments of a contest. And, because the magazine was so successful, it fostered and funded competitive attitudes and an unparalleled level of visual ambition. Witness Bill Frakes updating strip camera photography to capture an astonishing photo of Marion Jones at the Sydney Games. Months of negotiation with the Olympic powers that be, and the ever-paramount TV honchos, testing and re-testing, and then delivering when the chips are down, and the gun goes off.

Sports Illustrated has heard its last starter’s gun, ref’s whistle and quarter horn. The pictures live on, memorializing and celebrating the athletes we revere, capturing the anguish, pain, exhilaration, and effort required to be the best on the field. Thank goodness.

I remember getting invited to a big dinner at the 1984 Olympics, some 20-25 of us gathering for a meal. I was on assignment for ABC-TV, a callow pup, never having shot a Games. I did not belong there. The legends were present, laughing and joking. Confidence brimmed and sloshed like an overpoured beer.  I looked around the table and wondered….if ever, if ever….I could shoot a picture for SI. About a year later, a contract was offered, and the adventure began.

And now the magazine passes into memory. Glad I have the pictures. It was an honor.

More tk….

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