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?

That was the crux of O’Riordan’s absorbing documentary – what is in the grey area between what’s allowed and what’s not – and with science now playing such a big part in every elite athlete’s life, can we believe all we’ll see in London?

Half of all the participants will be drug tested, as will all medal winners. O’Riordan talked to a scientist confident there is now a test for the next generation of drug cheats: genetic dopers prepared to mess with their DNA to win. This was an insightful, thorough look at the science of performance, from all angles, from those who would never cheat to some who have cheated. The fragile-looking, deeply contrite Martin Fagan, the Irish runner now banned for taking EPO, would draw sympathy from even the most hardcore anti-doper.

“IT IS A CITY. It is a city,” said John Creedon in this week’s episode of his series that sees the radio presenter back on TV for another summer filler. As he was standing in the centre of Galway, and as his show is called Creedon’s Cities (RTÉ One, Tuesday), it was a daft bit of stating the obvious, a common feature of the show’s script. Creedon is given to looking off into the middle distance and saying things that are possibly meant to be wistful and poetic but just make you feel as if you’re watching a hokey travel series made 30 years ago for a generation of gullible Kelly-green wearing bus-tour Yanks.

He opened with, “I love Galway. It’s a party town. People are talkative. People always stop you in the street. There’s always some chinwag about football or hurling,” and ended with, “Galway will always be a women for me, like a woman, very open armed . . . She’ll always be wild and free.”

Maybe you have to be from Galway to warm to that sentimental guff, though the last scene, in which Creedon, for no apparent reason, dressed in 16th-century clothing – a flowing yellow dress and a big shawl – wandered through the streets, would have tested even the most obsessive Galwegian’s patience.

AT LEAST THERE’SWallander (BBC One, Sunday), in which Kenneth Branagh plays the gloomy self-absorbed Swedish detective with convincing authenticity for fans of Henning Mankell’s crime novels. The writer has said he’s a fan of Branagh’s interpretation, though you’d get tired hearing people say how much better the Swedish version is than this BBC one.

It isn’t. It’s just different, and this week’s The Dogs of Riga, the second of three new Wallander dramas, was a compelling, bloody and faithful dramatisation of the novel about police corruption in Latvia and the paranoia and fear that lingered long after the old regime ended.

And there was a satisfying Scandi crime crossover in the casting of Søren Malling, last seen in The Killing and Borgen, who made a brief but pivotal appearance as a Latvian detective hunting a vicious gang.

Wallander moves at a snail’s pace, the skies are gloomy, everyone has their coats on and the sea looks freezing. Perfect Irish summer viewing.

Get stuck into . . .TV50: Battle Station (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday). Expect forensic analysis as John Bowman (right), in a two-part documentary, traces RTÉ’s relationships with the political and cultural forces of the country in the first 50 years of Irish TV.

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