Monday, December 15, 2008

Judy Fortin Touchés Olympic Fencing

One of my all-time favorite CNN reporters is "Health Minute" host and CNN Medical Correspondent Judy Fortin. Our Edelman teams work with Fortin from time to time, specifically during IAAPA Attractions Expo 2006 in Atlanta, and when Cirque du Soleil "Corteo" tour visited Atlantic Station later that year (disclosure: IAAPA and Cirque du Soleil are clients of Edelman, the public relations agency where I work) .

Surfing the Web after work tonight, I just found that today Ms. Fortin posted a new report featuring Atlanta's Olympic fencing medalist Sada Jacobson.

Here is the written report, and the video is at this link. Good stuff!

I've not yet found an opportunity to view fencing during an Olympiad, but it's been on my radar since trying on a fencing uniform in the gym at Minnesota State University-Mankato back in 1991 (it was fun but a real workout -- barely lasted two sessions). Guess there's some latent nervousness in me regarding the whole "Smirnov Incident" (ouch!) about which I had sparse knowledge until writing this post.

Here are some other helpful links for those who want to lunge forth with more fencing education, with thanks to the International Olympic Committee, Federation Internationale D'Escrime and US Fencing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dreamboat Annie

The rockin' sister duo Heart -- seen here with a cover shot by Annie Leibovitz circa 1980 -- has long been one of my favorite bands. I lose track -- either Heart or Don Henley provided my first outdoor rock concert experience (both played the glorious Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheatre during 1990), each serving as an upgrade follow-up to Janet Jackson's big show at the Myriad Convention Center that summer of 1990. Good times!

Though "Dreamboat Annie" is a great Heart tune, this blog entry is not really about music. The song's title is just a pseudo-clever starting point for another thread of Olympic connections that goes something like this:

Ann & Nancy Wilson -- Heart -- "Dreamboat Annie" -- Rolling Stone magazine -- Heart photo on cover of Rolling Stone (thanks, Google) -- cover photo by Annie Leibovitz -- Annie Leibovitz portrait photos -- Annie Leibovitz Olympic Project for Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games -- Annie Leibovitz back in Atlanta on Dec. 10, 2008.

(The thread could also spin off, I suppose, with references to "It's A Hard-Knock Life" and such, but I digress.)

Last night in Atlanta, former Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz was in town showcasing her latest Random House book titled "Annie Leibovitz At Work" to a packed house in the cavernous main gymnasium of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA).

To me it was fitting that the world-famous photographer took the stage in a gym, since more than one segment of her live presentation (complete with wall-sized projections of some of her most famous photographs) referenced work with Olympic athletes.

Before delving into Leibovitz's presentation (see video), some notes about the book:

"Annie Leibovitz At Work" just hit bookstore shelves and includes 230 or so pages with about one iconic image for every three pages of text written from conversations Leibovitz shared with the book's editor, Sharon DeLano (though the text is written first person, I suspect DeLano did the lion's share of writing as, in person, Leibovitz seems to be a woman of few yet thoughtful words).

Of course, the book includes the famous images of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Rolling Stones, a rose-covered Bette Midler, Meryl Streep, Whoopi Goldberg (in milk-filled bathtub), Demi Moore and Queen Elizabeth. Also featured are some stunning aerial shots of Monument Valley, dramatic war images from Sarajevo (site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games -- one shot near the city's Olympic stadium included) and interesting family portraits that give some ideas for capturing loved ones on film during the holidays ... though none will be taken involving bathtubs full of milk). The accompanying text provides some brief or personal stories behind each image, or some general comments or tips on photographic technique. It's a fast read -- three Olympians appear (Carl Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Charles Austin).

So, back to Annie Leibovitz's presentation.

Leibovitz admitted in so many words that she is not a natural born public speaker. She shared some prepared remarks as an introduction before spending most of the event seated in a leather chair and reading directly from the text.

I was surprised and delighted that some of her most impromptu departures from the text came while describing work with nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, who she photographed just before the 1996 Games. Leibovitz used her story behind the photo to drive home two main points of the evening -- there are some shots that become part of history (capturing Lewis at his pre-Games peak as one example), and you should follow through on commitments even when you don't think you want to (she almost skipped photographing Lewis as he was not expected to medal in Atlanta -- a few weeks later he became only the third person to win nine gold medals).

What did not entirely surprise me (an explanation why begins in two paragraphs) is that Leibovitz remarked on the diversity of connections made with her portrait subjects to arrive at "the shot" -- her most vivid descriptions on this topic came while showcasing a range of photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his early career, Hollywood days and pre-political aspirations, as well as her memories of working with dancers and athletes (her new book includes notes from working with Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses that paint this picture).
Leibovitz closed the remarks by taking a few questions from the audience. I was next in line at the microphone, ready with a personal question for Annie, when she cut off the Q&A to start signing books (DANG!). Eventually, later in the evening, I did get to ask my question, "where was you photo of Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler Matt Ghaffari taken?"

Here is the back story to explain why I posed this question (Leibovitz's answer also follows):

When I was an intern at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs during the summer of 1995 (assigned to work in the public relations department at USA Wrestling), one morning I arrived at the USA Wrestling office to find a message from my boss. He said, in so many words, "There's some hot-shot photographer in town to take photos of a couple of [Atlanta Olympic-bound] wrestlers -- we need you to go with the wrestlers when the photographer comes to pick them up, and spend the day with the crew taking the photos."

As planned, a crew picked up the wrestlers (including Matt Ghaffari, an Iranian American who is one of the most genuine and coolest Olympians anywhere -- a real class act) and I to a public park with a massive green lawn and Pike's Peak looming to the west under a cloudless summer sky.

I was confused because there appeared to be two freshly placed dump truck loads of dirt -- one was sand, the other a darker clay -- recently poured on one flat expanse. The whole scene was punctuated with huge scaffolding covered with tarps, and a couple of ladders were in place. We were at the photographer's "studio" for the day. The photographer, of course, was Annie Leibovitz!

Leibovitz had a big crew and it was clear no expense was spared. Easily more than $100,000 went into this one setting as the dirt was used to create a wrestling venue inspired by ancient Olympic wrestling sites near Olympia, Greece, and the different shades of soil were trucked in to provide a range of hues for black and white Polaroids that Leibovitz started shooting as the wrestlers got going on the Terra firma.

I still have the business card for the Swatch public relations executive who was on site, presumably bankrolling the whole operation for what became Leibovitz's 1996 book titled "Olympic Portraits" (my good friend, Meghan, gave me a sweet Swatch featuring some of the photos from that book -- thanks, Meg).

Imagine my stunned surprise when, during our picnic lunch (arranged by Annie's intern and yours truly -- go, interns, go!) in the park, Leibovitz pretty much scrapped the entire "Greek dirt wrestling" set up because Ghaffari, the USA wrestler who went on to win silver in Atlanta, started telling Annie a very personal story about how as a boy his father taught him to wrestle by "pretending your opponent is a tree and you are trying to wrestle a tree out of the ground."

Leibovitz LOVED this -- you could see the wheels turning behind her tortoise-shell glasses as she asked Ghaffari to take hold of the oak trees under which we were lunching. After just a few more Polaroids we were all sent packing. Photo shoot's over, folks! So long, Annie Leibovitz.

The thing is, on that summer internship day in Colorado, I had NO CLUE -- ZERO -- who Annie Leibovitz was -- the entire day! The name did not ring a bell at all. For real. It was a day or two later, when I told a fellow intern or a family member about work that day in passing, that it finally registered "Holy Sh*t! That was that Annie Leibovitz!" I still cringe about my naïveté that day!

I also cringe because, as an intern on site at the photo shoot, I was asked to help collect all the trash and "Polaroid rejects" belched out of Annie's camera into the dirt. At one time my hands held dozens of "no good" photos staged and lost forever following Leibovitz's work on the ladders (I kick myself monthly on this point -- these shots would be extremely rare Annie Leibovitz originals now, and they are in some landfill instead of my apartment!).

I learned the following year, when the Leibovitz Olympic book debuted at an Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) press conference at The INFORUM in Atlanta, that Leibovitz wound up re-shooting Ghaffari wrestling trees at another location later in 1995. As an ACOG staff member, I was in attendance at the packed press event, and tried to pose the question at a cut-short Q&A there, too -- until yesterday it was my understanding the final Ghaffari wrestling trees portrait was snapped at Midtown Atlanta's Piedmont Park, down the street from my current residence.

The answer, after 12 years: Annie Leibovitz does not remember!

While she signed a copy of "Annie Leibovitz At Work" she answered my question with a friendly and frank reply that they did re-shoot the "wrestling trees" at a later date, but she was not sure when or where. She offered a sincere thank you and handshake during our brief reunion (she has, by the way, some of the most graceful, large and strong hands of any handshake in recent memory) she asked about Ghaffari and how he is doing, perhaps signalling that although he was not the most famous celebrity in her repertoire, a connection was made that day in Colorado Springs.

She did not remember me, so it seems we're "even" on naïveté about each other (ha-ha).

I appreciate Annie Leibovitz taking time to answer one more question -- this one for the Flip Video camera -- just after signing the last of thousands of books sold at last night's MJCCA event.

The question: Would she take on another Olympic project in the future?

The answer (see video) yielded a surprise -- Leibovitz apparently was supposed to attend the Atlanta Games but was denied access near the last minute. It's tough to read whether she remains miffed about this fact (will let you, video viewers, draw your own conclusions).
It is my hope the future will in fact bring Olympians into focus for Leibovitz's craft (if Swatch is out there reading, let's see what you can get in the works for Vancouver 2010 or London 2010, OK?).

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vancouver in 432

In just 432 days, Vancouver will ignite the 2010 Olympic Cauldron to kickoff the XXI Olympic Winter Games. It's never 'too soon' to start planning travel to the next Olympic host city, and the New York Times published a great read on the city in yesterday's 'Escapes' section.

In the cover story by Dave Caldwell, there's a taste of things to come regarding the Vancouver Olympic Village, the city's great quality of life, real estate and references to ABC Sportscaster Jim McKay (his misnomer for Vancouver apparently remains the talk of the town for some during the last 19 years).

Are you considering a trip to Vancouver, or will you be tuning in to wall-to-wall Olympic coverage on NBC or other national Olympic broadcasters? I'd love to hear from those already researching their Canadian adventures.

For me, absolutely! Glad the New York Times gave me a nudge to look the Province of British Columbia over the weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

He Ted, Not Jane

On the eve of travel to work at IAAPA Attractions Expo 2008 in Orlando (er, actually it was just a couple of hours before the flight to Florida from Atlanta, on Nov. 14), the Atlanta Press Club hosted another great lunchtime event at downtown's Commerce Club just a few blocks from my desk at Edelman.

The guest of honor was one of my favorite fellow-Atlantans: The one and only Mr. Ted Turner. "The Mouth of the South" has a new book titled "Call Me Ted" which I've found to be an interesting read that filled in the blanks on several excerpts from another Turner biography of the mid-1990s titled "Citizen Turner" (sidebar: I picked up a copy of this book from a dumpster at Columbia University's School of Journalism, which was undergoing asbestos abatement while I was house sitting in Manhattan during October 1996, on post-Atlanta Games holiday -- by contrast, I paid the cover price for "Call Me Ted" and it is worth every penny).

Turner was on site with several members of his family (no sign of his former spouse, Jane Fonda, who was filmed for this blog just the week before Ted's press club engagement -- thanks again, G-CAPP, which wants you to know that three out of 10 girls in the U.S. become pregnant at least once before age 20 - see their other "fast facts" to learn more). There were also many current or former CNN employees in the audience, and Ted spent most of his time at the podium answering questions from the standing room crowd.

As shown on the video for this post, I posed an Olympic question to Mr. Turner that was only half-answered by "Citizen Turner" and escaped mention in "Call Me Ted." Paraphrasing here:

Mr. Turner, your book mentions milestones of your sailing career, but not your attempts to make the U.S. Olympic Sailing teams of the early 1960s (as noted in "Citizen Turner") -- can you please talk about any level of regret or recollections on the Olympic trials?

Turner's answer was very good (see video) and not entirely surprising, and he also kept on message about his book talking about his last days at AOL/Time Warner. Thank you, Mr. Turner, for answering my question.

Among many other memorable remarks of the event (reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in "PeachBuzz" the day after the lunch event) was the notion that Mr. Turner is looking for new friends (an audience member suggested he create a new reality TV show to recruit a few). I also loved Turner's answers to audience questions about CNN Headline News ("I can't watch it anymore"), President Bush and General Motors. Former CNN Chairman Tom Johnson's introductory remarks were outstanding as well.

One other remark that stuck with me was that Turner commented about litter and downtown, with sort of a "Give A Hoot: Don't Pollute!" Woodsy Owl tone. He explained that while walking through urban Atlanta he often takes time to pick up litter, and my impression was that he encourages his current team to do the same.

Since we are neighbors and he made a good point, since Nov. 14 I've taken a moment to pick up cans, discarded newsprint or other waste while walking to lunch at CNN Center or on MARTA, and it would be cool to see others do the same (that was, after all, an action that led me to that copy of "Citizen Turner" while exploring Columbia University back in the day).

I'd love to hear other reader feedback about "Call Me Ted" and hope folks will post their impressions of the text as a comment. Happy reading!

Sweet Caroline

As a quick follow up to the post on Neil Diamond in Milwaukee, here's another video from the big night at the Bradley Center. This one was captured specifically for my good Olympic friend, Brian, and his little girl in Shreveport, La., who shares a name with the title of this tune.
Also, I could not resist posting this link to Will Ferrell portraying Neil Diamond on a Saturday Night Live spoof of "VH-1 StoryTellers" of days gone by -- hilarious!

Hello, My Friend, Hello

There are plenty of "right place at the right time" moments that have made 2008 grand. One recent example came in the arctic northern city of Milwaukee, Wis., while visiting my girlfriend of five years for Thanksgiving.

After a big night of eggplant parmigiana and limoncello at Buca di Beppo, we steered the Corolla over by the Bradley Center and found that Neil Diamond was in town (actually, we knew for a couple of weeks he would be there, and also found that remaining tickets were slightly out of our price range).

Thanks to a friendly curbside negotiation (and two crisp-from-the-ATM Jacksons) with a parka-clad "I Need Tickets" guy, in minutes we were searching for our Section 217 seats expecting to be in the not-quite-nosebleed section of the arena.

Imagine our surprise to find our seats (face value $120 each) were on ROW FOUR at stage right! HELLO! Man, what an awesome show!

Although we missed a couple of the megahits (specifically, "Hello Again" and "Love On The Rocks" -- we did arrive 20 minutes into the concert, which explains the friendly ticket guy's rock bottom pricing) we WERE on site for The Jazz Singer's big Olympic-related hit "America," which was, for me, the unofficial theme song of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bid -- I have vivid memories of this song playing on the radio the 1990 day Atlanta won the bid (turns out NBC saw fit to make it somewhat official in their July 19, 1996, broadcast of the Opening Ceremony from Georgia, and the song was also a more official component of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games of Salt Lake, according to this bio). See the video below for a little taste of the show.

Atlantans have a chance to experience the magic of Mr. Diamond next week (I highly recommend this show to anyone who has or has not experienced Neil Diamond live) at The Arena at Gwinnett Center, and I may just have to be there, too, if the right "friend in the ticket business" and Buca di Beppo are in the neighborhood.

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