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road to 2012: setting out

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Nathan Stephens
Nathan Stephens by Bettina von Zwehl © Bettina von Zwehl - National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 Project

03 August 2010

A series of striking new photographic portraits of athletes, politicians and engineers, including Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland Paralympic programme athletes Nathan Stephens and Ola Abidogun, was revealed in July as part of the National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 project.

The exhibition Road to 2012: Setting Out, which runs through to 26 September and is free of charge, is part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and shows a new side to Britain’s medal hopefuls and key figures behind the bid and delivery of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games through powerful portrait images.

As the two-year countdown to the Olympic and Paralympic Games begins, the Gallery has unveiled 30 portraits, the first from a total of 100 commissions which will be displayed at the Gallery each summer over the next three years, and for the first time, the National Portrait Gallery has commissioned portraits and video interviews with some of the sitters and behind-the-scenes photographs of the shoots which reveal the stories behind the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Road to 2012: Setting Out features the work of photographers Brian Griffin and Bettina von Zwehl. Von Zwehl’s photographs include young athletes aspiring to be selected for Team GB for the first time, World Champions, and Olympic and Paralympic medalists, including in this instance Stephens and Abidogun.

The first 30 commissioned portraits on show in Road to 2012: Setting Out include those involved in winning the bid and the delivery stage, as well as top young athletes who reveal the people who inspired them, including Stephens and Abidogun in addition to World and European heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, the UK’s first individual world diving champion champion Tom Daley, double Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington and world renowned architect Zaha Hadid who is pictured beside her Aquatics Centre during construction.

The project website www.npg.org.uk/roadto2012 - where visitors can contribute their own inspirational photos was launched at the end of July and features new interviews with Bettina von Zwehl’s sitters, behind-the-scenes shots and East London perspectives. 

For this commission von Zwehl was invited to make a series of portraits on location to give the viewer a sense of personal encounter with her sitters. Inspiration marks the beginning of an athlete’s journey to the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Gallery’s accompanying interviews, in which the sitters speak about their own inspiration, are integral to the display. Travelling across the country with her assistant and husband David Robinson, von Zwehl photographed the athletes in settings where they live or train. Robinson’s control of light and von Zwehl’s concentrated engagement with her subjects result in meditative observations of face, mood and physique.

Each subsequent phase of the Project will be displayed free to the public at the Gallery in the summers of 2011 and 2012. The final display in summer 2012 will open with the staging of the Games and will culminate in an exhibition that includes highlights of all the commissioned work.

In the Gallery…


Sixteen-year-old sprinter Ola Abidogun made his international debut in 2009. His success this season puts him on-track for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the next milestone on his journey towards the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Bolton-based Abidogun started running at school and joined Horwich RMI Harriers, his local athletics club. He trains alongside non-disabled athletes at the Reebok Stadium and is studying for his A levels.

"I admire Usain Bolt for his attitude…most people expect sprinters to be very serious people on the line, Usain Bolt tends to inject a bit of fun." Ola Abidogun

He was photographed on 5 May 2010 at the Bolton Arena.


One of only two UK athletes to compete at both Winter and Summer Paralympic Games, Nathan Stephens was a member of Team GB’s ice sledge hockey team in Turin 2006 and competed as a thrower in Beijing 2008. Despite losing both legs at the age of nine when playing on railway tracks, he continued with sport. His talent was recognised and he went on to win gold medals for the javelin, discus and shot put at junior and senior national level. He is training and competing in preparation for the IPC World Athletics Championships in 2011, the next step towards his ambition to be the UK’s greatest Paralympian in the throws events.

"When I lost my legs, it was 'right, what can we all still do together?' I still played football, rugby with my friends, sitting on the floor as goalkeeper, scooting myself around with a rugby ball in my hands." Nathan Stephens

He was photographed on 18 May 2010 in Barry Island, Wales.