Heading to Rio, Past Olympics Help Photojournalists Plan for the Games

Photo by Smiley Pool, for the Houston Chronicle

By Katelyn Umholtz

Two photojournalists, one from the Dallas Morning News and another from the Colorado Springs Gazette, have photographed nine Olympics since 1996. Soon, they will be attending their tenth Olympics game, and the experience they’ve gained from past events will be more important than ever.

“I'm pretty calm after nine of them,” said Smiley Pool of the Dallas Morning News and an NPPA member. “I've packed my stuff and I've got a checklist in my head. When I get there, I'll sort out the transport. And then I'll run the rapids.”

Pool is calm because he knows better than to have unreasonable expectations before the games. His work in the past for the Houston Chroncile at Olympic games has prepared him to know that he might miss historical moments while photographing another event. The transportation may not be efficient. There are issues surrounding Rio itself that could cause worry for anyone going.

Mark Reis of the Colorado Springs Gazette covered his first Olympics in Atlanta. Even though he’s still excited and anticipates great moments to happen at Rio, he too is calm and taking the planning steadily. In fact, he’s not even that worried about the Zika virus, which has been the headline of many Rio Olympics stories and the anxiety of several people making their way to the games this year.

“It's basically winter time right now,” Reis said. “The temperatures are lower, and there's less of an issue with mosquitoes right now. But of course, I still plan on putting on insect repellant pretty much anytime I head out the door.”

And as far as the threat of terrorism goes, both photographers said they will actually feel safer once inside the Olympic bubble.

Runners pass beneath Olympic flame during the men's 800-meter semifinals at the 2012 London Olympics. Photo by Smiley Pool for the Houston Chronicle.

What could be an issue, however, is their own personal security. Brazil is home to some of the most dangerous cities in the world. After reports of photography gear being stolen at the Rio World Cup, this has become something else for photographers attending the games to worry about.

“My only concern would be leaving that Olympic bubble and experiencing Rio crime,” Reis said. “There are certain places in the area that I don't want to be late at night, by myself, with my camera gear.”

Because of this, Pool said he will not use public transportation as much as he did in London and will instead be dependent on Olympics transportation. And that isn’t always reliable.

“If the Olympic transport doesn't work, which is more the norm than the exception in my experience, I'm just going to have to take my lumps,” Pool said. “There will be events that are missed. You just have to manage your own and your editor's own expectations.”

Reis has become great at planning ahead since his first Olympics game. It’s all about doing the homework, he said.

“It's like covering three Super Bowls a day for 17 days,” Reis said. “It's very difficult. But I plot up what I think is going to be a rough day-by-day schedule. It tends to be a combination of events that I think are the marquee events with local athletes.”

Pool plans too, but he said it’s much different now than it was years ago because of budget cuts. He’s a one-man team for a lesser-known organization, so he’s aware that he’s not going to make every event that he wants, and he will have to work with the positions he is given to take pictures.

Olympic first-timers shouldn’t be surprised if they get a bad position, he said.

“Do not beat yourself up when you picked the one side of the pool, but the really great picture went in the other direction. This happens a lot,” Pool said.

Reis said at his first Olympics, he learned to work with security and officials at the games, and he knows now not to feel like a credential is an entitlement.

Even though access can be limited, that doesn’t mean you’re limited in getting great photographs, Reis said.

“I've never, at any Olympics, failed to find a great spot in which to cover the event, although I may not get one of the prime spots on the field,” Reis said.

Probably the most important lesson Reis will take to Rio from the nine Olympics he’s covered is the importance of building relationships with other photojournalists.

“You should have a team of people around you to help you succeed,” Reis said. “It's not that we don't compete against each other, because we each want to shoot great images, but we also support each other.”