It is one of the most breath-taking Olympic scenes of all time. The 13-year-old diver Fu Mingxia, clad in a multi-coloured costume, wet hair spiked back, caught in mid-air with the city of Barcelona spread out behind her. Remarkably, the tale behind the photograph is just as engaging.
Bob Martin, 33 years old and little known outside the UK at the time, is the man ultimately responsible for creating a shot that not only defined a magical edition of the Olympic Games but also summed up the invigorating feel-good factor that envelopes the Olympic Movement.
While a gaggle of global photographers snapped Fu during her gold medal-winning dives, it was all made possible by Martin’s vision and foresight. It was the Englishman who first saw the shot, planned it, took it, got it on the front cover of Time magazine’s Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games preview (below), and set the template for the world to follow.
“I went on one of the first World Press Briefings (in 1991) and saw this amazing venue with this amazing view,” the Englishman said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Fantastic, I have got to photograph that.’”
Martin knew what he wanted, but it took hard work to get it. First up, he pitched it to Time magazine, who liked what they heard and agreed to fund a trip back to Barcelona during the build-up to the Games. Next, Martin had to find a subject.
“I called the RFEN (Royal Spanish Swimming Federation), but they said it was too cold for a Spanish diver to dive in the pool in the spring,” the photographer laughed. “So the only diver I could get who was willing to do it was an English girl called Tracey Miles.”
Miles was an international-class competitor, but not quite at a level to have qualified for the 1992 Games. No matter, she was about to become the star of one of the most famous diving shots of all-time. Subject secured, Martin had to find a way to hang in mid-air and shoot the scene as he saw it.
“I had to get them (the Barcelona '92 Olympic Organising Committee) to put up some small scaffolding so I could get that angle, which was fine because there wasn’t even a stadium up at that time,” he recalled. “Everything was in the exact position I wanted it.”
This included Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the iconic temple that is part of a site on the UNESCO World Heritage List and reaches up beneath Miles’ arched back in the image. The final piece of Martin’s jigsaw involved a few tricks of the trade.
“The great thing about Spain is that the weather is so fantastic,” Martin said. “But we also lit the shot with big studio flashes pointing up at Tracey. That is why the sky is so vivid and why no one can quite get the same blueness.”
The result was staggering. Not only did the image of Miles, flying over the expanse of Barcelona, grace newsstands across the world and subsequently feature in numerous international exhibitions, but it also inspired an industry and fuelled a career.
“All the way during the Games people were coming up to me saying, ‘I saw your picture in Time magazine, and I have been and done it,’” Martin said. “And I still had people a few years ago, when the world swimming championships went back there in 2013, coming up to me and saying, ‘I took your picture.’ That is quite touching for me, as an old git of a photographer.”
Martin has gone on to become one of the most decorated and in-demand sports photographers of his generation, and he knows how much he owes to that moment of clarity in Barcelona, 26 years ago.
“It set me up for my career, the fact that I took this picture before anybody else,” he said. “Loads of people considered it a really iconic picture and that helped kick-start my career. It was my first really big international picture.”
The diving competition at the 1992 Games captured the public’s imagination like no other before. The intoxicating mix of Fu’s dazzlingly difficult dives – she would go on to change the face of women’s 10m diving during a career that yielded four Olympic gold medals and one silver – and the mind-blowing setting saw to that. Thanks to the perfectionist in Martin, he can’t help but have slightly mixed feelings when he looks back at the photograph that started it all.
“To be quite frank, I think it’s a fantastic, iconic view, but I would love to have done it better than I did it,” he said, with a wry grin. “As far as the dive is concerned and the composition, many, many people have done it much better than me since then. My one pales into insignificance when you see a lot of the stuff other people have done, but I did set the position and the template. Most importantly, I am delighted I did it before anyone else. Seeing the picture, and realising the picture, and doing it when you couldn’t get to the right angle, until they built the scaffolding – that made it for me.”Martin himself went back during the 2013 World Championships and, in his words, “did it better”. “But it’s still not quite got the something that the first picture has,” he admits.