Last month we told the story behind the iconic photograph of Alberto Juantorena and journalist Olaf Brockmann at the 1977 Athletics World Cup. This month we spoke to Reuters photographer Kai Pfaffenbach, who through a series of photographs at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, helped David Storl achieve shot put gold.

“I’ve been doing the infield positions for Reuters for the past 15 years now at whatever track and field event there is. Whether it’s a world championship, or at the Olympics, I’m always one of two Reuters photographers covering the in-field events. On the night of August 16 I was assigned to cover the shot put.

“The funny thing was, I was lying on one side of the ring on my belly because I wanted to get a low-angle shot and maybe a reflection of the flood lights. There was a TV microphone in the way – this little grey-white shield they have which looks like you’re carrying a little dog around – and actually the position wasn’t brilliant. 

“So I took the series of his attempt and I said to myself ‘OK the position doesn’t work’. I looked at the series on my camera and I didn’t have a feeling as if there was anything wrong with the attempt. They measured the throw [it was his fourth attempt] and only then the red flag came up and they said it was not OK – it was a foul.”

David Storl Moscow Pfaffenbach Series ()

Pfaffenbach's photo series of Storl's attempt – including television mic

“Although the photos weren’t great, I thought I’d keep the pictures. Maybe later on the video or the television replay it will show that it wasn’t a foul and that will make a story. But I said to myself that doesn’t look like a foul.

“That was when David came to me running saying ‘Did you photograph it? Can I see the pictures?’ He jumped into me and then Andrej Shukov, the head judge, looked over my shoulder as well. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realise that basically everybody was looking at it, apparently it was live on television and other photographers were taking pictures of it, but suddenly I was getting loads of messages on my phone within the next five minutes. 

“And then the judge went backwards and forward through the series of pictures and you could see that he was not hitting the wooden ring, so it was no foul. So he [the judge] said ‘actually I’ll let this count’, which surprised me because usually they only use the video evidence.

“It didn’t seem too much of a big deal to me at that moment. He was first, but I think he had another two attempts left, as did Whiting, so even for him it wasn’t a big deal. But apparently no one managed to throw any further, so he got the gold medal.”

Storl Moscow SPIKES ()

Reese Hoffa, who finished in 4th, congratulates Storl. Pfaffenbach is taking a photo in the background

“He gave me a – and I’m not a small kinda guy, but he is huge – he gave me a big, big hug, and I was shaking. It’s like when my four-year-old daughter gets a hug off her dad, that’s how I felt at that moment! Within about ten minutes I must have received over a hundred text messages saying ‘wow you made it’, and I hadn’t even finished the day.

“By the end of the night there was German television in the mixed zone, where we are normally not allowed to go, because it is a no-go zone for photographers after the finish line. Everybody was shouting: ‘Kai! Kai! Kai, can you come over?’ I was thinking ‘what on earth do they want now? What’s going on?’.

“People said ‘they want to do an interview with you’. And I didn’t know why anyone would want to interview ME, I was busy with other stuff, I was just concentrating on getting my work done. But they said that all competitions were done anyway and I could finish my work after the interview. That’s when people actually told me that my series of photos was kind of decisive for the whole competition, which I didn’t realise before, or at least the amount of attention it received, I hadn’t realised.

Storl Moscow SPIKES ()

Hats off to the photographer

“At the end of the year in Germany, the National Olympic Committee and the Sports Association have a Fair Play Award and they awarded it to me and Mr. Shukov, the head judge, which was a really big story because it comes from the Interior Minister.

“That then turned into a weird story itself, because it was supposed to be awarded on December 6, and the night before I got a phone call saying I had to jump on the next plane because Nelson Mandela died and I was on the team to cover the funeral. So I couldn’t even attend the ceremony, so my wife did, which was nicer for the Interior Minister because she made for a better photograph anyway. But yeh that was how the whole story turned out.

“Considering I am covering a lot of international and important assignments for Reuters, sports-wise and with the effect it had, it is definitely the photo with the greatest impact I ever took.

“Of course he definitely had the best attempt, but it proved it was the best attempt, because the Americans first complained and said we should see the video and then the video proved it on top of my photos and is the official proof. 

“But the fact they accepted my photos as proof played an important role, because it meant he was world champion in the stadium and not some five hours later in some office room. So it was as it should be: he could soak up the atmosphere.”