The Brooklyn Museum’s Exhibition “Who Shot Sports” opens with a photograph of athletes looking poised as they pose with bats and their teammates. Early sports photography doesn’t capture the athletes in motion, because it wasn’t fast enough to capture physical movement. The exhibition explains that although the camera was invented in 1839, it wasn’t until 1872 that Eadweard Muybridge developed a shutter speed fast enough to capture the motion of a galloping horse. Before Muybridge sports photography was limited to portraits of athletes or carefully drawn illustrations of human locomotion.
Capturing Olympic Athletes is a central theme of the exhibition, but one of my favorite photographs by Jon Pack shows an Olympic site serving as the location for an impromptu and friendly game of soccer between amateur athletes nearly 20 years after the Olympic games. Olympic sites are something of a Potemkin Village built quickly to highlight the host country’s wealth and status and then quickly abandoned. Pack’s photograph shows a very different sort of athletic game. Next to Pack’s photograph is a beautiful photograph of an Olympic volleyball match between Brazil and Canada in the London Olympics. The city of London is captured in a painterly golden glow that makes it look like a renaissance cityscape. The spirit of the Olympics is huge stadiums packed with rapt spectators, but it is also athletes sharing victory. Ken Geiger captures the Nigerian Relay Team winning the 4×100 meter relay at the Barcelona Olympics. It is both an intimate moment between athletes and a moment of national pride and victory.
The Olympics is also a commercial event. From the millions of dollars in advertising revenue to the huge spokesperson contracts the Olympics is big business. The Opening Ceremony pop-up shop is a reminder of the commercial component. Opening Ceremony pioneered the athleisure concept of sporty clothes for arty people. Their varsity jackets and “Club USA” emblazoned over sized tees are sporty and fun without explicitly referencing the Olympics. It lets stylish people get into the Olympic spirit without looking like an athlete at the Opening Ceremonies.