These days, it’s virtually impossible to get exclusive footage of something.
Smartphones are everywhere. Citizen journalism is all around us. Social media is a hungry beast and there are more than enough suitors out there prepared to feed its insatiable appetite. News travels fast.
It’s even rarer at a major event the size of the Commonwealth Games.
But for a few extraordinary hours on this day 10 years ago, at the biggest event in the world at that particular time, I happened to find myself in a situation where the digital footprint ground to a halt and the footage my cameraman and I were capturing was EXCLUSIVE 101.
How it unfolded defies belief. But here’s how it went down.
I’d been to India a few times before. I’d played cricket there myself in early 2004 and a year earlier had spent a month with the New South Wales squad reporting on their win in the inaugural Champions League T20 tournament.
So when Channel 10 was assembling its team to cover the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, I got the nod.
It was a dream come true. I’d long been a student of the Games movement. I have vague memories of Moscow 1980 but very vivid recall of the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. I was six years old but drawn into the trickery of Matilda’s winking eye and the circuit of sport in my home state. The golden swims of Tracy Wickham and Lisa Curry. The swagger of decathlete Daley Thompson. And random events like legendary lawn bowler Rob Parella missing gold to a Scotsman on the green.
It’s fair to say I poured my energy into very different agendas to most kids my age so my eventual career in sports journalism may have been as much destiny as design.
After a year or so of working on TEN’s Sports Tonight I had the chance to chase stories with the Australian swimming team.
That was in full swing leading up to Delhi so my journey to India was via Kuala Lumpur, where I spent a week in camp with the Dolphins.
By the time I got to Delhi the roster had been allocated. I’d drawn the Opening Ceremony. 28 years after first locking eyes on the Commonwealth Games, I couldn’t wait to be part of it in person.
I was paired up with my friend Chris Newport. We’d been together in Malaysia the week before and had worked together for the previous four years. Synergy between the journalist and cameraman is crucial and Chris and I developed a good understanding of how each other operated.
Some of the first people we bumped into at the Stadium were the then Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and highly-renowned sports administrator Mark Peters.
They’d just presented to the Commonwealth Games Federation an update on their bid to host the 2018 Games on the Gold Coast.
How’s the irony that 8 years later I would be sharing a drink with Mark in the Athletes Village on Games eve as part of the media team for that GC2018 event!
Chris and I were given a very loose brief. There weren’t high expectations. India was unknown territory from a Games context and even as a host broadcaster, we really didn’t know what to expect.
My boss at Sports Tonight, Craig Reynolds, was heading up our team on the ground in Delhi.
Craig told us to simply meet up with the Australian team and see what we could get.
From a media perspective, Opening Ceremony events are about the colour and pizzaz and the joy of the athletes as they get their first public feel of the enormity of the event.
India would be bringing a whole new cultural dynamic that was exciting to be a part of and tell the viewers about back home.
It was late afternoon/ early evening when we got to the assembly point for the Australian team.
It was hot. Searing hot. Humidity high and that early October baking of the ground beneath it meant it was like standing on a hotplate.
But there was a goodwill among the athletes. An excitement and an understanding that while the conditions may have been oppressive, this is India. It was what was to be expected. And it was being embraced.
They were seated under a giant marquee. Massive industrial fans were positioned at the front and provided some relief.
As the previous host of the Games in Melbourne in 2006, Australia would be the first to enter the stadium.
They were sporting a very different look. Their shirts an array of paint chart yellows, blues, greens and oranges, paired with a grey suit and a silver tie. Trousers for the men. Skirts for the ladies.
As champion pole-vaulter Steve Hooker noted in an interview I did with him – “we look like a packet of M and M’s.” Yes, they did.
The Australian team was prompt in their arrival. Thing is, in India, that’s not always returned in kind.
Time can be, shall we say, open to interpretation on the sub-continent.
Over the years on my trips to India, I’d regularly be told “just five minutes” when I’d enquire about how long something would take.
I soon realised, five minutes in India is not necessarily determined by the ticking hands of the clock!
Nonetheless, spirits are high among the Aussie team. There’s plenty of banter. They’ve fashioned hand fans out of information pamphlets and they’re munching on apples to curb the hunger pains.
At the front of the group the netballers take turns grabbing photos with their skipper Sharelle McMahon. She’s been given the honour of carrying the flag and leading the Australian team into the Stadium. Chris and I grab a snap with her as well!
Up to an hour has passed when the Australian team gets the call-up from an event official with a broad British accent. He collectively refers to them as “Team Australia”. It’s a nice touch.
This is the moment they’ve been waiting for. There’s a spring in their step.
It’s at this point Chris and I have a decision to make. What do we do?
Sure, we’re the host broadcaster for Australian TV, but what does that mean?
Within that there’s varying levels of access rights. There was no clear definition on where our access ended.
I told Chris we’d tag along and see how far we could go.
Seeing the smiles on the athletes’ faces, I was keen to capture that closer to the point of entry. To get some reaction as they walked in.
The walk to the stadium was about 200m. Through the concourse area and down to an access ramp to take us underneath the stadium.
Along the way, several security personnel queried Chris and I. They seemed as confused as us. With a mixture of bluff and persuasion I insisted we were just doing our job and were entitled to be with the team. A few athletes vouched for us and we continued on.
Our progress was only temporary.
Australia took 368 competitors to Delhi. Out of respect for the event – and to amplify the athlete experience – most of them were on hand to march that night.
Weather charts have recorded the temperature at somewhere around 32 degrees that evening.
When more than 300 people are bundled together shoulder to shoulder, underneath a stadium in a closed in corridor no wider than a narrow street, that rises considerably.
To make matters worse, several industrial air vents were built into the side of the stadium. They were howling at full tilt. Pushing out purely hot air. Think about when you’ve cooked a roast and the gust that hits you when you open the oven. It was that.
When we hadn’t moved for at least 20 minutes, the novelty started to wear off. Tensions were rising.
To appease the mob, event directors would order the Australian team to move forward. Small gains. We’d creep 10 metres or so and again be told to stop.
Chris and I were in front of the group. We were filming athletes and I was getting some short interviews. The story we started with was definitely starting to turn.
Shirts were being unbuttoned. Ties loosened. Skirts hiked up. Anything to try and stay cool.
Sweat was pouring. We were standing in a sauna.
It had to have been well over 40 degrees. And breathing was difficult.
I was lucky. I had clear space around me. I wondered how bad it was further down. I navigated my way through the group. Stood about six deep in among the packed throng. I lasted no more than a minute.
Enough was enough. Against the urgings of a local event director, Australian team management made a decision to move forward as one.
Team Chef de Mission Steve Moneghetti performed a limbo move under the barrier fence to pave the way. That marathoners physique certainly came in handy.
There was space up ahead. Spreading out would at least go some way to making things slightly more bearable.
Our athletes looked as though they’d dived fully clothed into a swimming pool. Grey clothing does not mask perspiration.
Athletes were competing the next day. Wrestlers and boxers had weigh-ins to consider.
Australia’s Commonwealth Games chief Perry Crosswhite made the call. With our camera rolling, he told organisers they were out.
“You’ll have to go ahead without us. We’re not staying.”
This was huge. Never before had an Australian team boycotted an opening ceremony, while standing on its doorstep.
And the entire episode was playing out in an underground dungeon away from public eyes.
Against their better judgement, they stayed the course.
An hour after being told to assemble in the bowels of the stadium, the Australian team was given the green light to proceed.
Somehow, they took beaming smiles out into the stadium with them.
As Sharelle was leading the Australian team on their official welcome lap inside the stadium, Chris and I ventured back into the tunnel to gauge the sentiment of other nations.
Fair to say, the Australians were not alone.
We noticed several athletes and officials requiring medical assistance.
At one point, an official asked us – why are you filming this?
These were clearly the images India didn’t want the world to see.
Circumstance saw to it that this was a calamity that social media missed. No phones. No signal.
I’m not sure anyone would have understood the magnitude of what they endured if we hadn’t captured the footage that night.
Steve Moneghetti expressed his disappointment at what had transpired at the next day’s media conference.
But with no other journalists or cameras on hand the night before – coupled with the timezone difference and the pace of the news cycle – it barely rated a mention in the papers back home.
Chris and I knew we were sitting on some compelling content.
The unknown was the conditions we were in. We were guests in a foreign country, granted visa access because of our Games accreditation.
An accreditation that could be easily stripped without warning. Especially in India!
We decided it would be wise to make a swift exit from the tunnel area.
I found a quiet zone well away from foot traffic and put a call through to Craig to let him know what had happened and what we’d managed to record.
He’d been at helm of several Olympic campaigns for the Network and decided it would be a good idea to get the disc off site as soon as possible.
It was given to a colleague and we stayed to get reaction from the Australian athletes once the Opening Ceremony had concluded.
It was an incredible night. One of those moments in Australia’s Commonwealth Games history that may have been consigned to urban myth if we didn’t happen to be there to capture the story.
I wrote it up the next day in the International Broadcast Centre we were working out of. Paul Atkinson edited it together.
It ran in the first few stories on the news just as the gold rush was getting underway.
The story of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony Australia almost didn’t participate in.