How An Olympics Photographer Captured Usain Bolt's 'Cheeky Grin'

Aug 15, 2016
Originally published on August 15, 2016 9:17 pm

On Sunday, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won the men's 100 meters in Rio, retaining his status as the fastest man in the world.

One photo from the day visually defines the career of this record-breaking athlete. It's from the semifinals.

In it, Bolt is leading the pack. He glances over his left shoulder, grinning, just before he crosses the finish line. His competitors are barely nipping at his heels. Everything below the waist is a blur.

Cameron Spencer, a Getty Images photographer from Australia, captured that moment. "I think there's no greater athlete on the planet at the moment," he tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.

This is the third Summer Olympics at which Spencer has photographed Bolt. "What people love about him, and what photographers love about him as well, is he's such an entertainer," Spencer says. "He's so confident and he plays up to the crowd, and I think when he walks into that stadium, it's electric. And last night was no different."


Interview Highlights

On how Spencer knew he had the photo

When [Bolt] went past me, you know, this happens in 9 1/2 seconds, and I kind of knew at the 70-meter mark he was going to probably be ahead of the rest. ... When he passed me around the 70-meter mark, I was infield and I sort of panned my camera with him ... it wasn't till I looked at the back of my camera — firstly hoping that something was sharp and that I'd captured it — I then realized he's almost looking straight at me and he had the big grin going, and the eyes, and I knew that it was special once I saw that.

On the scene in the Olympic stadium

When there's that many people there to witness greatness and the hush goes over the crowd before that starter's gun goes off, it's spine-tingling stuff. ... He's got his famous [lightning] pose he always does, but he's done that a million times. And I think last night, giving that cheeky grin to the other competitors was something that made it different.

On what it's like to photograph Bolt

I've never met him personally, but I have done a lot of running around trying to chase him, last night included. ... I did the lap of honor with him. ... It's that balancing act between interaction and also being a fly on the wall, letting him run around — and you also have to avoid tripping over everything around the stadium because you're also running backwards in front of him.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Yesterday, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won the 100 meters in Rio and kept his status as the fastest man in the world. One photo from the day visually defines the career of this record-breaking athlete. It's from the semifinals, and in it, Bolt is leading the pack. He looks to his side, grinning. His competitors are barely nipping at his heel. Bolt's shoulder and face are in sharp focus while everything below the waist is a blur. We're joined now by the photographer who took that photo. Cameron Spencer of Getty Images is on the line via Skype. Hi there.

CAMERON SPENCER: Hi. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: So you're at the semifinals shooting this race, and when you looked at the back of your camera having shot the image, did you know in that moment you had something special?

SPENCER: When he went past me, you know - this happens in nine and a half seconds - I kind of knew at the 70-meter mark he was going to probably be ahead of the rest. He's a slow starter I think because he's such a big guy, but once he gets those legs and arms pumping, he sort of takes off.

And when he passed me around the 70-meter mark I was infield and I sort of panned my camera with him. And you know, he looked infield to sort of check the competitors out, and it wasn't till I looked at the back of my camera, firstly hoping that something was sharp and that I had captured it. I then realized he's almost looking straight at me and he had the big grin going and the eyes, and I knew that it was special once I saw that.

SHAPIRO: You've been following Bolt for a long time. Tell us about your history with him.

SPENCER: Well, this is my third Summer Olympics, and I've done two Track and Field World Championships. He's been at all of them. And I think there's no greater athlete on the planet at the moment. What people love about him and what photographers love about him as well is he's such an entertainer. He's so confident and he plays up to the crowd, and I think when he walks into that stadium, it's electric.

And last night was no different. I think it was going to be a special night. And when there's that many people there as well to witness greatness, and, you know, the hush goes over the crowd before that starter's gun goes off, it's spine-tingling stuff.

SHAPIRO: Do you study his quirks, his habits, his routines? Do you have to know that in the final stretch he's likely to do this, and in the opening he's likely to do that?

SPENCER: I think that comes with experience. You know, the first time I shot Bolt, I was at the velodrome in Beijing, and I had to race on a bus to the start line. And my position was - Cameron, you have to be at the start. The race is happening at this time, and you need to shoot the guys coming out of the blocks. And I was freaking out, you know? This is the Olympics and oh, my God.

And I think you get more confident and more experience every time you cover a major event like this. You know, he's got his famous striking pose he always does, but he's done that a million times, and I think last night, giving that cheeky grin to the other competitors was something that made it different.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever met him?

SPENCER: I've never met him personally, but I have done a lot of running around trying to chase him, last night included. After the hundred men's final, I did the lap of honor with him. And he's reacting to the camera and sort of playing up to us a little bit, but we also want to give him his space and let him enjoy the moment with the crowd. So it's that balancing act between interaction and also being a fly on the wall and letting him run around. And you also have to avoid tripping over everything around the stadium because you're running backwards in front of him.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Do you know whether he's seen the photograph?

SPENCER: I've heard that he has commented on it and said that he loves it, but I haven't actually heard directly from him (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Getty Images photographer Cameron Spencer, thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on the shot.

SPENCER: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Cheers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.