Snapped: The moment Steven Bradbury skated to Olympic immortality

Celebrated sports photographer Clive Mason is forever grateful that, as a junior member of Getty Images’ Olympic team, he was shunted out to the fourth-choice position for the short track speed skating 1,000m final at the Salt Lake City 2002 Games. From there, the young Mason had the perfect angle to shoot one of the most memorable Olympic moments. 

Clive Mason is remarkably self-critical about the shot that helped to earn him the title of Sports Photographer of the Year from the Sport Journalists’ Association in 2002.

But whatever technical flaws there may be in the picture (above) of a surprised Apolo Anton Ohno (USA) pushing his skate across the line as a Steven Bradbury (AUS) celebrates winning the 1,000m short track speed skating at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, it is a priceless encapsulation of one of the most endearing Olympic tales in recent memory.

Just 50m from the finish line in the race, the top four contenders – Ohno, the man who would go on to win eight Olympic short track medals, China’s Li Jiajun, the defending silver medallist, the then three-time team world champion Mathieu Turcotte (CAN) and the Republic of Korea’s Ahn Hyun-soo – all crashed. That left Bradbury, the man who had been trailing more than 15m behind the field, free to glide home and grab Australia’s first ever Olympic Winter Games gold medal.

Mason, now a senior photographer at Getty Images, is adamant that his picture would win no prizes for artistic merit.

“Technically I am photographing Apolo Ohno,” he said with a smile. “If you look at the picture, he is in focus and Bradbury is slightly out of focus. Photographically it is not a great picture. It is not one I ever kept, it never made its way to my portfolio, it’s not on my website, it’s not in my ‘Best Of’. It’s just one of those pictures that is important in the overall scheme of the Olympics and obviously Australia. In context it has much more meaning than it does as an individual photograph.”

Getty Images/Clive Mason

The context has proved so compelling that “doing a Bradbury” now features in the Urban Dictionary and is a phrase known and loved by Australians all over the world. Sixteen years later, Mason seems barely able to believe it happened.

Ultimately, the image was captured thanks to Getty’s comprehensive approach to photographing major sports events – a policy Mason admits often annoys young snappers.

“Because it was my first Games, I was given the fourth position in [terms of] priority,” Mason said. “You have got your head-on finish shot which everyone wants for a final, that is the main position, and then there is an elevated one or two, and then my position.

“For a race around an oval there is a position just round the bend from the finish because quite often they [the skaters] cross the line and they don’t know they have won because it is tight. It is only when they get round the bend and look up [at the screen] that they then celebrate.

“And that is exactly what happened in this instance. If I hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have had that shot. You can’t necessarily turn up and just look for the best angle; you turn up and go where the position is and where you have been told to be.”

Bradbury’s gold seems as if it was fated from the start of the 2002 Games.

Getty Images/Clive Mason

In the quarter-finals, the then 28-year-old, competing in his third Olympic Games, crossed the line in third and looked set to be heading home. But the reigning world champion, Marc Gagnon from Canada, was subsequently disqualified, allowing Bradbury to progress. Even more poignantly, in his semi-final two of his rivals fell and another was disqualified, allowing him to qualify for the final.

With Australia yet to win an Olympic Winter Games gold, Mason did head to the 1,000m final with the intention of keeping an eye on Bradbury, but no more than that until…

“When I saw them falling I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ and before you knew it, he had won,” Mason said.

The fact that his shot was the one that went around the globe as the world embraced the ultimate tortoise-and-hare sporting story was greeted with quiet satisfaction rather than euphoria by Mason’s bosses.

Getty Images/Clive Mason

“The head of sales in Australia at the time did say, ‘This is great, it’s everywhere.’”

There were a few colleagues – particularly Australians – who were jealous of the junior getting the shot of the Games but, as Mason modestly puts it, he was just doing what he was told.

“As it was my first Games I was being pulled left, right and centre and sent here, there and everywhere to do different stuff, most of which, at that point, I knew nothing about,” he said. “It was a bit of a baptism of fire really.”