“QUI EST RAPOPORT”…THEROND
See Photo Gallery One month into the summer of 1959, I received a call from Stephane. Paul was occupied on another assignment and would not be available to cover a weekend assignment in Philadelphia. Was I available? Was I? Just tell me what, where and when. The USA track and field team – soon to compete in the Rome Olympics – was to compete against the USSR team at University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field. Paris had cabled New York they needed coverage, especially of U.S. pole vaulter, Don Bragg (who would later win the 1960 Olympic gold medal) favorite to win the event, not to mention that other track and field stars like Tamara Press, Vasili Kuznetsov, Greg Bell, Max Truex and a young Wilma Rudolph would be there, though Match was interested only in “Tarzan,” Don Bragg’s nickname.
I packed my equipment, including my Pentax reflex body which accommodated a huge 400mm f4.5 lens and two Nikon SP rangefinder cameras, an assortment of lenses and an overnight bag with a change of clothing. Stephane signed a letter under an embossed red, black & white Paris Match logo declaring that I.C. Rapoport was officially working for the magazine covering the track meet. Armed with the letter, 20 rolls of Tri-X film, I boarded the train to Philadelphia on my first official assignment for a major news publication.
On my trip down I was certain I would be successful. I imagined what would happen, the angles from where I would shoot Don Bragg (unfamiliar with the limitations put on the photographers covering these events). Not being a sports photographer did not shake my confidence that I couldn’t send off images of Bragg flying over the bar, the Pennsylvania sky the only background, finally impressing Roger Therond, the editor most responsible for the fabulous pictorial layouts in Match.
But, when I arrived at the stadium, the letter that Stephane so ably crafted did not work. The Meet organizers and their press crew would not issue me a field pass, something I desperately needed to photograph the field participants. No amount of pleading would change their minds and, believe it or not, I was forced to purchase a ticket to get into the stadium, like anyone else. Trying to shoot the track and field event from the grandstands proved impossible. Bragg and his pole vault seemed miles away and even through my 400 mm lens, he was just a dot, a tiny figure in red, white and blue, not to mention the looks I received from nearby fans. Recalling Paul Slade’s advice: to bribe whenever possible, I slipped an usher a five dollar bill and he allowed me into the bullpen area, a passage from the streets to the infield.
Fortunately, Don Bragg came within a few feet of me to hold an interview and I was able to shoot a nice close photo of him, but was still unable to shoot him jumping over the bar. I gave up that part of the assignment and concentrated on what I could photograph. I knew I was in trouble and resigned myself to get whatever pictures I could from that bullpen location.
The cinder track that circled the field, was just on the other side of the bullpen fence. I was able to photograph the racers as they ran past.
A track enthusiast, standing nearby, was able to fill me in on all the possibilities, informing me that one of the American runners, Bob Soth, who had never finished any higher than 3rd place, was now in the lead and looked as if he would win the 10,000 meter competition. It would be a great upset as the Soviets had been favored.
I took photographs of Soth as he ran past followed closely by the Soviet runner. The crowd was on their feet. I was in a terrible position to shoot the amazing end of the race; the finish line was on the opposite side of Franklin Field.
Disheartened, imagining what I would say to Stephane and Paul on Monday, I prayed I would get a great shot of Bob Soth running past my vantage point. I decided to use the shorter lens and slow the shutter speed to induce some blur in the image, adding to the speed of the race when all of a sudden, the crowd hushed.
Bob Soth had stopped running and was walking up the cinder path towards me. He looked as though he was dazed, dream-walking. He obviously was suffering from the summer heat.
Just as he drew alongside my bullpen fence he stopped and lurched. I had changed to a higher shutter speed anticipating something would happen and I was photographing his last efforts to complete the race – even though the Soviets, and every other runner, had passed him. I was shooting rapidly, advancing the film with my thumb lever as Soth collapsed from exhaustion to the track directly in front of me. I shot frame after frame as he struggled to his knees, then to his feet, trying to move forward, spinning, finally, falling onto his back.
On Monday, my film was rushed to Paris. On the day that the magazine closed, after several anxious hours, editor Roger Therond sent the following teletype to the N.Y. Bureau.
Indeed. QUI EST RAPOPORT? (Who IS Rapoport?)
My magazine photojournalism career had begun.
Oh. “Tarzan”? Don Bragg, the pole-vaulter: he set a new world’s record. Unfortunately, on my film, he was merely a dot in the sky.