From Kilimanjaro to Limerick, it takes your breath away
TV REVIEW:IN LONDON CALLING (RTÉ One, Tuesday) the Olympic-bound race walker Robert Heffernan was on a massage table in his small living room while his physiotherapist worked on his legs. Between yelps of pain Heffernan shouted instructions to his young children in the next room.
Babysitting and Olympic preparation: it was an unexpected mix. Somehow you don’t expect Olympic athletes to have much else going on in their lives than eating, sleeping, training and competing. And in truth, as we found in London Calling and another meet-the-Irish-athletes series, It’s Not the Taking Part (Thursday- Saturday, Setanta Ireland), most of them don’t.
The series were similar in the intimacy they established with the athletes, who talked candidly about ambition, the highs and inevitable lows of competing and the pressure to perform. And no matter what the sport, from the decidedly posh world of three-day eventing to boxers in chilly gyms, all the competitors sacrifice so much of the ordinary living their nonsporting peers enjoy.
For those of us who skim past the sports pages it was good to meet the lesser-known athletes in sports you hear little about. Such as the intense-looking badminton player Scott Evans, who has broken more rackets than he can remember and who came close to jeopardising his qualification for London by getting a black card – his sport’s red card – at a tournament in Norway before Christmas. Shouting rude words at the ref is never a great idea. Or the graceful high jumper Deirdre Ryan, the first Irish woman to jump 1.95m. Her mum and dad talked of their pride; family support from a very young age and a mantlepeice groaning with under-12 trophies were consistent features of almost all of the stories.
“You want to have the tracksuit with the five rings,” the boxer Kenny Egan said in It’s Not the Taking Part. As he has very successfully worn one already, he knows what he’s talking about.
ROBERT HEFFERNANpopped up again in Faster, Higher, Stronger (RTÉ One, Tuesday), as did his pop-up tent. Sitting on top of the Heffernan’s double bed in their small home in Douglas, Co Cork, it’s a see-through dome tent, the sort a child might have for a sleepover, but this has a pump to remove some of the oxygen, and Heffernan sleeps in it to simulate training at high altitudes, a proven way to raise blood oxygen levels and so boost performance. The programme’s presenter, the Irish Times sports journalist Ian O’Riordan, wondered where Heffernan’s wife, Marian, a relay runner also training for the Olympics, slept. She’s in with the young fella, answered Heffernan. Even thinking of it makes me tired, and if there’s any trouble with the baton in London, let’s just remember that scenario.
Another Irish speed walker, Colin Griffin, lives in a house in Limerick that is forever Kilimanjaro. His house has been sealed and fitted with pumps to mimic the thin air at high altitudes. It’s the only house of its kind in Ireland or Britain. But is that fair? It’s within the rules, but shouldn’t an athlete who isn’t lucky enough to live in a blood-boosting region just, well, suck it up and perform to the best of his natural ability? Isn’t that the true and pure Olympic way – or did that go out with knitted vests and woollen shorts?