Olympic glory

Elissa Jobson

Road to 2012: Aiming High, the culmination of the National Portrait Gallery’s largest ever commission, celebrates the contributions of all those who made the London 2012 Olympic Games a success

Few could have predicted just how wholeheartedly the Brit­ish public – from Inverness to St Ives and everywhere in between – would have embraced the Olympic and Paralym­pic Games. In autumn last year, as the country recovered from the shock of the rioting and looting that had seen some of England’s major cities burn, and with the coalition government’s austerity measures biting hard, London 2012 seemed to many a colossal waste of money, especially to those living outside the south-east in areas where the promised Olympic-led boost to the economy would have little impact.

But as the Games drew nearer, and the Olympic flame made its circuitous journey around the British Isles, passing through more than 1,000 cities, towns and villages and the hands of 8,000 torchbearers, the mood began to change. This new zeitgeist was captured by Road to 2012: Aiming High, the third and final instal­ment of the National Portrait Gallery’s largest ever commission.

The BT-sponsored project has seen more than 100 portraits of London 2012 protagonists – not only the athletes but those working behind the scenes too – go on show at the London gal­lery and in special outdoor exhibitions in Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh. By pulling some of the focus away from the Ol­ympians, the exhibition celebrates the otherwise unsung heroes without whom the displays of sporting excellence would not have been possible.

Jillian Edelstein’s cinematic portraits give a quiet gravity to the people she photographs, and her careful selection of backdrops and the mannered poses in which she places her subjects leave the viewer with a sense of the true value of the contributions these individuals have made. Her image of Philip Shepherd, who is pic­tured in the beautiful Suffolk countryside incongruously playing his cello, belies the mundanity of his Olympic endeavour – Shep­pard was the composer who rescored all 205 national anthems for use during the medal ceremonies.

Nadav Kander’s life-size cut-outs of ten Olympic torchbearers – ordinary men and women whose acts of personal bravery, self-sacrifice or civic duty saw them nominated for this honour – hover effortlessly above the floor. They seem to be stepping out of the gallery walls, in the same way that they stepped briefly into the torchlight for their 300 metres of glory.

But, as with the Games themselves, the real stars of the show are the Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Anderson & Low’s for­mal portrait of members of the British women’s gymnastic team takes them away from the high beam and parallel bars and into the changing room. The elegance of the shot and the brooding light strip away the glitz and garish make-up of the gymnastic arena, returning to them a human dignity and calm poise.

Kander’s intense black-and-white photos of four rising stars sim­ilarly divorces these young men and women from the trappings of their sports, yet the images still successfully convey the strength, power and determination needed by all Olympic athletes.

About the author:

Elissa Jobson is Consultant Editor of Global: the international briefing


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