The colors, the city, the speed: A love letter to the Olympic Games

(Click any of the images for a larger view.)

TBallVancouverLast week, I started thinking about why it is that I love the Olympics so much. There’s not really one simple answer.

For as long as I’ve been designing pages, whenever the Games roll around, I’m engrossed. It is, by far, my favorite time to be in a newsroom. Some people get that way about elections; others about baseball playoffs or the Super Bowl. Despite having worked in some capacity in or with sports departments for most of the last 15 years, I’m not a big sports fan, so neither of those last two really do it for me. The Olympics are different, though. The Olympics are a cultural event. They are the world on a stage, and there are stories to tell that go far beyond what happens on a track, in a pool or on a court. Those stories tug on heartstrings, diminish (or in some cases, emphasize) cultural differences, bring people and countries together.

The only other event I can think of that conjures up similar feelings is the World Cup. I was lucky enough to go to South Africa with some friends two years ago to experience that first-hand, and it only made me want to witness an Olympiad that much more. For the first time in my life, this year, I’m making that happen and will be in London for the final two weeks of the Games.

TBallVancouver2As a designer, the Olympics are special for a whole host of other reasons. My work has always been inspired by — and has always owed much credit to — spectacular photography. There is no event in the world that better showcases the world’s elite shooters. (And, as an aside, there is nobody in the world who can better photograph swimming — or, really, most Olympic sports — than Donald Miralle.) And while I am certainly not among them, there’s a pretty large number of folks in this country who can shoot football really, really well. Or basketball. Or baseball. The United States has more than its share of great sports photographers. But the Olympics are a different, er, ballgame. To make beautiful photography out of fencing, or wrestling, or diving, or handball takes a different skill set; a different way of looking at the world through a lens.

Despite all the hand-wringing of late about newsroom cutbacks (and drama over Gannett’s decision to hand the bulk of its Games photography to US Presswire), the bottom line is the world’s best sports photographers will be on hand all around Great Britain starting next month. And that’s what gets me going. That’s what makes me miss being in a newsroom right now. (Witnessing many of these events in person is somewhat of a consolation, I suppose.)

TBallTurinI always took my cues for designing pages from the Games themselves — the colors, the city, the speed, even the scenery. The Winter Olympics (always my favorite) called for blues and grays and plenty of white space. I was lucky enough two years ago to work with Irene Jacobs, a talented illustrator who actually drew the official iconography and background art seen all around Vancouver, and on TVs all around the world. When the Post’s preview section came out, it led with Jacobs’ custom illustration of the skier Lindsey Vonn, in a style that was a fresh take but also, before the Games even started, familiar in a very good way.

The Summer Games always wound up being more traditionally played, wherever I was, for some reason. They always called for big, bold typography, billboard-size photos, and a general sense of loudness and urgency. Fun in its own right, but rarely the elegance of Winter.

TBallTurin2Like many in similar positions, for me, the Games always meant a lot of work. More often than not (and generally at my own insistence), I’d work every day, from the Opening to the Closing Ceremonies. Exceptions came during the Athens Games when I worked at the Indianapolis Star (I flew to New York one night to see a show, and was back at work the next afternoon) and two years ago during the Vancouver Games, when I was finally on a staff large enough to afford everyone some semblance of a weekend, even at a busy time. (I’d start to get a little loopy around Day 12 or 13.)

But this year, I’ll be on the other side of that equation. And I can’t wait to see the work that comes as a result of one of the greatest sporting events on Earth.

(Tim Ball, most recently an art director for sports and news projects at The Washington Post, started his own freelance studio in March. Find some of his work at timballstudio.com. Follow him on Twitter @tball.)