On the evening of August 5, 2012, in London’s Olympic Stadium, Usain Bolt crossed the finish line to retain his 100 meters title in a time of 9.63 seconds. Only 162 seconds later, photos of his triumph were on the desktops of Getty Images customers around the world.

It was a moment that had been six years in the planning. A team of over 100 Getty Images photographers, editors, technicians and support staff had been assembled and 40km of dedicated cabling had been run around London (cabling that had to be promptly removed, once the Games were over). Remotely controlled cameras had been positioned in the roofing and floodlight gantries at the stadium.

It was a far cry from the origins of our industry-leading coverage of major sporting events.

Back in 1968, a man called Tony Duffy had funded his own way to the Mexico Olympics. He returned home with an iconic image of Bob Beamon smashing the world long jump record. On the strength of this photo, published far and wide, Tony started a company called Allsport, which would grow to become the premier sports photography agency of its kind. When Getty Images acquired Allsport during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it became not merely the foundation of our editorial arm, but the template on which the strength of that arm has been built.

Since then, there have been many landmarks and leaps forward, particularly since the move to digital in the late ’90s, when the output of images from major events shot up from around 150 per day to 5,000 and counting. But our coverage of London 2012 was, by some distance, the most comprehensive ever of a sporting event.
Nearly 1.5 million photos were shot (four times more, even, than in Beijing), of which over 86,000 were made available to customers. Images on the London 2012 website – all supplied by Getty Images, as official photographers to the International Olympics Committee and Local Organizing Committee – racked up nearly 5 billion page views.

“When the event starts”, said Ken Mainardis, Vice President Sports Imagery and Services, “you and your project team have been building all this stuff – technology, infrastructure, coverage schedules, logistics, plans – over many years. And essentially you’re pushing a rock to the top of a mountain. The moment the event starts, that rock is rolling down the other side. All of the planning has been to get the rock in the right trajectory, so it sets off on the right track. Because at a major event, with so much happening, there’s very little time to change the rock’s direction. If things go wrong, it’s extremely difficult to push it back on track.”

Embracing New Technology: Innovation in Images

Apart from its sheer scale, coverage of the 2012 Olympics was made even more demanding by our explorations into new ways of creating dramatic images. “We’ve really been trying to innovate around interactive photography,” Ken said. “Which includes things like 360s, panoramas, gigapixels – very, very high resolution – 3D photography and robotic cameras.”

The last of these is particularly relevant to sports photography, as it means cameras can be put into locations that would be inaccessible to photographers, while still keeping flexibility and control. “At the next World Cup, we’ll have remote cameras in the roofs which, instead of being fixed, will be able to track action. Essentially a photographer will use a joystick, giving full control of the camera. So everything you could do with your hand-held camera, you can do remotely. You can continually reframe the picture, so it’s more likely that the action will move into your frame.”

For all the technological leaps forward, however, and for all the exciting possibilities these developments have opened up, the quality of the end product is still Ken’s primary concern. “Our customers and their readers don’t usually care who took the pictures or how. They just want the best possible pictures, the most interesting pictures. That’s why a lot of our focus is on making sure we’re able to offer compelling stuff, which isn’t just what everybody else shot. We want something unique.”

This uniqueness is achieved in two ways, which are fundamental to the modus operandi of our editorial division. The first is specialization.
“Getty Images have always believed that the best sports photographers are specialists in their fields … motor sport specialists, golf specialists, etc.,” Ken said. “Just as a writer is able to give readers more insight, by being an expert in what they’re covering, photographers are no different. And, of course, you’re more likely to capture the key moment, if your experience helps you to anticipate that moment.”

The power of partnership

The other route to distinctive work is one that we have been vigorously pursuing, ever since we entered the editorial arena in 1998: building relationships with organizers and governing bodies, which give exclusive access to certain areas of events. It’s an advantage that was central to our coverage of the London Olympics and will be even more evident in Brazil next summer.

“Essentially, we’ll be FIFA’s photo operation. Our photographers working for FIFA will have access to parts of stadia that no-one else goes to – they’ll work around field positions that no-one else has, so they’ll be able to give a totally unique perspective, whether it’s in the dressing rooms or close to the benches. And that’ll be available exclusively through the Getty Images distribution platform. So that’ll give a whole other level of depth to what we do.”

As this suggests, taking leadership for granted is the last thing on the Getty Images agenda, with the Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2014 World Cup zooming into view.

“We certainly never rest on our laurels,” Ken said. “The areas we’ll always continue to work on are: 1) our relationships – we’ll always look for new ways to work with commercial partners and governing bodies, 2) the value we bring to the business of sport and our partners, and 3) the distribution of content. We’ll need to focus a lot in the future on being ‘platform agnostic.’ For many years, in this business, you either pumped out your content via a wire feed or people came to your archive and pulled it from you. We’re investing time in thinking about APIs (application programming interfaces), on people integrating with our own infrastructure, so they become part of our ecosystem, and on monetizing our content further downstream from where it’s created. These kinds of distribution models are going to be key to the development of where that’s all going.”

And distribution will only speed up even more, as customers demand it and technology enables it.

“It would seem that 162 seconds sounds fast, but there will be a continuous arms race to keep collapsing speed to market,” Ken said. “There will be somebody who can do it live, at some point. Whoever cracks that, it will immediately become very big.”

Don’t bet against Getty Images being the people who get there first.