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Olympic hopefuls in focus.

Today the street in front of the 1932 Olympic village sports an odd mix of expensive Porsches and Audis, owned by USC students, and battered pickups and old sofas that bake on the edges of sun-drenched lawns in midday. The area is not what is used to be. The Swiss-style chalets, uncommon to Southern California, are now in disrepair, but in their prime 52 years ago, they housed such athletes as Eleanor Holm, Babe Didrikson, Buster Crabbe and other Olympic contestants from around the world come in quest of Olympic gold.

Holm, Didrikson and other Americans won the gold--Holm for the 100-meter backstroke, Didrikson for the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles. But it was Crabbe who had the most dramatic victory, in the 400-meter swimming freestyle, as reporter Arthur J. Daley described it in the New York Times on August 11, 1932:

"Crabbe was behind for most of the race, trailing Frenchman Jean Taris, until the last 100 meters. When Taris and Crabbe made their turn and headed for the last 100 meters, things began to change.

"The cheers for the crowd of 10,000 grew deafening in its proportions. Crabbe was still a few yards behind Taris, racing to the finish. Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic champion himself in 1928, could scarcely contain himself in his front-row seat. He leaped over the fence and rushed over to the side of the pool for a clearer view of the race.

"Three yards away from the dull, white concrete wall, Taris and Crabbe were absolutely abreast. Judges stood crouching over the finish line, waiting eagerly for the first hand to touch. It was Crabbe's. A powerful push with his brawny, right arm and his left hand stopped against the wall, a scant tenth of a second before Taris' fingers touched. Crabbe had not even regained his breath before he shouted to a friend in the stands, 'Now for the 1500 meters!'" Crabbe didn't win that event, but he did go on to a successful career in motion pictures.

They are all gone now, Crabbe, Didrikson and Holm, and a new crop of Olympians will be trying to fill their shoes at the 1984 Summer Olympics, which begin in Los Angeles in July. Following their progress for the past two years has been the job of Walter Iooss, Jr.

Iooss, considered one of the three best sports photographers in America, has been documenting the training of the 1984 summer Olympians, and it's more than just a full-time job. His assignment has taken him to some pretty dangerous places, such as the middle of rush-hour traffic in midtown Manhattan, and to exotic destinations such as Caracas, Venezuela, where many Olympic hopefuls showed their mettle at the Pan-Am games.

Iooss has shadowed athletes in Indianapolis, at training facilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Mission Viejo, California, and in smaller towns and communities across the country, the names of which he can't keep straight. He has taken his camera underwater, on high-dive platforms and into sand pits. He's been soaked in rain storms and he's haunted endless numbers of locker rooms. What he has been looking for are those snatches from athletes' lives that Olympic viewers, whether they watch from the bleachers or at home on television, will likely never see, for the instant passes too quickly.

Deciding which athletes are the best candidates to shoot has been "like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," says looss.

About ten athletes, such as Carl Lewis, the long-jumper, and Alberto Salazar, the marathon runner, were obvious choices because they consistently win. "Then, I read every article I can about sports, to find out who's the best in each, so I can go out and 'shoot' them," he says. "I got a lot done at the Pan-Am games last year.

"Many of the top athletes competing in the Olympics competed at the Pan-Am games. I got a chance to shoot sports I wasn't so familiar with, like field hockey and pistol shooting. In fact, I was able to get so close to many of the participants, I didn't have to use any extra-long lenses, which are necessary when you can't position yourself close to your subject."

Iooss believes the 1984 Olympics, like the 1932 games, will derive much drama from the competitors in the aquatic events. He finds diving the most beautiful. He has spent many hours photographing the swimmers and divers at the Olympic training facility at Mission Viejo, where swimmers such as Dara Torres are in training.

"I developed a rapport with Dara when I began shooting her during the warm-up period. She and the other swimmers were going through stretching exercises, and I kept shooting. At first, she thought I was pervert with a camera," he says laughing.

"She saw me again during another time I was out at the Mission shooting. Meanwhile, I developed a working relationship with Coach Shubert, the swimming coach. He told me, 'Come any time you want to shoot.' So I did, but next time, I got into scuba gear, took an underwater camera and got into the pool. Then after practice I had Dara and Tiffany Cohen, another world-class swimmer, do laps after practice.

"There I was underwater, shooting them, and they kept seeing me through their goggles and they'd laugh. We got some really good shots," he says.

Another aquatic star Iooss developed a rapport with was diver Greg Louganis, considered by many sports authorities to be a shoo-in for a gold medal in platform diving.

"The way I shot Greg was to actually practice or experiment on another diver, perfecting my shooting technique. Then I went to Greg and told him I wanted to try to do something special, something unique. He cooperated. I've found that when everything is working right, it comes down to just a few minutes it takes to get that great shot," Iooss says.

Although it helps for everything to go right, Iooss says it also helps when things go terribly wrong. At a track meet in Indianapolis last year, it started to pour just when he was going to photograph the marathoner Alberto Salazar. Iooss took cover under the stands, emptied of spectators. When he saw the marathoners coming down the track for the finish line, the empty stands in the background, he thought he might have a great shot.

Iooss ran in front of the runners and started shooting, his motor drive advancing the film rapidly. Although the actual process of photograpy took a great shot of Salazar and another competitor heading for the finish line.

Not all of the competitors he has shot are as well known, though, as Salazar, Louganis or Edwin Moses, the great hurdler whom Iooss persuaded to pose. Look at his photo of a bike rider raising his hands in triumph in New York City traffic and consider this story.

The cyclist's name is Nelson Vails. He used to be a messenger boy for a Manhattan delivery service and would race around town on his bicycle. He became so proficient he began training in earnest and became a nationally ranked cyclist in the sprints.

"Nelson trained at the colorado Springs United States Olympic Training Center," Iooss adds. He neglects, rather diplomatically, to mention that the center is actually a group of old army barracks. He does describe the training facility as "not real opulent. Most of the good athletes train in clubs in their hometowms or in Los Angeles, where it's warm."

Having followed sports for the past 20 years as a Sports Illustrated photographer, the 36-year old Iooss seemed just the person to ask the essential question: Why do some athletes rise to the occasion, while others fold under the pressure?

"You can't put a finger on it," Iooss answers. "In tennis, it's the athletes who make the key points who win. Some people make them and some don't. Their physical ability is the same, but maybe the winners are tougher mentally."

All eyes will be on the Olympics, but Iooss feels that the real drama, and the biggest event in the lives of the prospective Olympians, will be the Olympic trials, which take place over the July 4th weekend.

"I liken the trials to baseball: It's the regular season and the playoffs put together. If you don't do well during either, you don't get to the World Series, which in this analogy is the Olympics. If an athlete doesn't do well, he doesn't get a place on the Olympic team. Do you know how heartbreaking that is? Years of training and all they get is a ticket home, just weeks before the Olympics begin. Some athletes will lose by only 1/100th of a second."

Who then, are the athletes to watch, the ones who have a chance to take home a medal, the champions who win under pressure?

"Nobody has a medal locked up," Iooss cautions. "An athlete can sprain an ankle warming up at the Olympics, and he'd be out of competition. But if they stay healthy, I think Moses will win the hurdles, Lewis will take the long jump and a great boxer named Mark Breland can take home a medal. And Mary Lou Retton is an exciting gymnast. She may be the best vaulter in the world among the women.

"You know, TV will make the Olympics really exciting. There'll be 400 cameras capturing all the action."

As for Iooss' camera work, some of which is reproduced here, it will travel the country in a special exhibit sponsored by Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. The exhibit will be opened in Washington, D.C., by Sen. Howard Baker. The night before the Olympics begin in Los AngeleS, the photos will be auctioned, the net proceeds going to the American National Sports Federations.
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Author:Rosen, Frederic W.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1984
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