David Davis is one of the top photography writers ever. He has an astonishing talent for telling the story behind some of the most memorable sports photos of our time, including the shot of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey after scoring the winning goal at the 1999 Women's World Cup, of Kathrine Switzer running the Boston Marathon, and "the Photo That Took Surfing Worldwide". He's back again with another riveting piece that tells the story of the photographer who photographed one of the greatest long jumps of all time.
The story tells how an amateur photographer, Tony Duffy, bluffed his way onto the field for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and was the only photographer to capture a clean shot of Bob Beamon's world record-setting long jump. It is a fascinating read and illustrates perfectly how a single moment and a single image can create a career that changes your life forever.
Duffy got into photography very casually, never intending to do it professionally:
Living in London during the Go-Go ‘60s, Duffy grew to hate the 'staid, stilted, conservative accountancy environment where you’re expected to be sober and careful and prudent and all that stuff,' he told me in a broad accent that Mike Myers might have studied for Austin Powers. 'It was totally the opposite of what my personality was.'
He turned to photography as a hobby. He bought an old Voigtländer camera 'mainly for holidays. I was never really into photography as a medium. It was a method of taking pictures of my trips and various girlfriends I had. That was about it.'
As fate would have it, he ended up dating a woman who was also an Olympic athlete:
Patricia Nutting, an 80-meter hurdler who was talented enough to represent Great Britain in three Olympics, was one of those girlfriends. "She’d say, ‘Look, I’m competing on Saturday. Why don’t you come along?’”, Duffy remembered. 'I started taking pictures of her in action out of something to do, rather than just sit and watch.'
Nutting encouraged him to send some of his photos to a local magazine and they liked them so much that they bought them and published them. Duffy's interest was piqued and his photography habit began to grow;
He traveled to local meets to shoot pictures, even after he and Nutting split up. He upgraded his camera to a Nikkormat, the consumer version of a Nikon, not the sort of equipment a professional would use. He had to manually advance the film each and every time he took a picture.
Eventually, Duffy decided to attend the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, picking up a brand new 300mm f/4.5 lens for the occasion. Wearing a team jacket borrowed from his (now ex) girlfriend, Nutting, Duffy bluffed his way into the Athletes' Village and spent some time chatting with a couple of long jumpers. That was when he first heard about Bob Beamon.
The subject came around to Bob Beamon, (Ralph) Boston’s precocious American teammate, 'a slash of a man, 6’3”, 160 pounds,' according to Sports Illustrated. Boston knew that (fellow long jumper Lynn) Davies liked to play psychological games with his opponents and he had some advice for Davies about the long-limbed, long-necked 22-year-old Beamon: 'Don’t get him riled up because he’s liable to jump out of the f***ing pit.'
Duffy immediately filed away that tidbit. 'Wow, this Beamon must be worth watching,' he thought to himself.
I'll stop posting excerpts here, because I really can't do the original article justice. Take a few minutes and go read it yourself; it is absolutely worth it. In short, Duffy managed to fake his way onto the field and thanks to his prior conversation with the aforementioned athletes, situated himself to get a straight-on shot of the leapers. He took one frame of Beamon and he absolutely nailed it, capturing what The Daily Mail would eventually count as one of the 50 greatest sporting photos of all time.
Duffy would go on to to have a wildly successful career as a sports photographer, capturing more iconic images, such as a shot of the "Twickenham Streaker" and Bruce Jenner at the 1976 Games.
Duffy also founded a photo agency called Allsport, which quickly grew into an industry powerhouse. Allsport (and its archives, including the Beamon photo) would eventually be purchased by Getty for a reported $51.1 million. Not too shabby for a guy who snuck onto the field.