Television: Child geniuses, pushy parents and cycling dopes

Why would you want a child to memorise a deck of cards? And will Paul Kimmage get a chance to see the bright side?

Rough ride: the doping whistleblower Paul Kimmage still asks tough questions

Rough ride: the doping whistleblower Paul Kimmage still asks tough questions

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

Obsessives are the stuff of often weirdly compelling television. Take the parents in Child Genius (Channel 4, Monday). The series, back for a second year, follows 15 children taking part in a gruelling, pointless competition run by British Mensa to find the UK’s Child Genius of the Year. “Child” is in the title, but it’s all about the parents. They’re the ones you watch and remember – pushy, terrifyingly confident – clinging to their children’s IQ scores as if the numbers have any relevance in the real world.

Shosana, mother of a hot-housed nine-year-old, Aliyah – “I’m smarter than her. She’s not profoundly gifted, as I was,” says mum – makes it easy to be all judgy and self-righteous, which is the desired response to these cleverly edited parenting-themed programmes. The undeniably smart child isn’t great at memorising decks of cards. (More music-hall trickery than a measure of genius, I’d have thought.) “Can you find a way to forgive yourself?” murmers Shosana, a psychologist (yes, really), to her sobbing child. It’s not the smartest way to reassure a child you’ve set up for a public failure.

The award-winning journalist, former professional cyclist and doping whistleblower Paul Kimmage is a man obsessed – and every minute of the excellently paced, beautifully filmed feature-length documentary Rough Rider (RTÉ One, Monday) shows it.

In his 1990 book he revealed the pervasive culture of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling. Instead of being thanked, as he naively expected, he was ostracised by colleagues for breaking rank, for disloyalty to the pack.

The programme details the long-running fallout from his outspoken anti-doping stance, including the sundering of his childhood friendship with his fellow cyclist Stephen Roche and the multiple threats of legal action prompted by the allegations. Libels are, says Kimmage, the Oscars of journalism. “But when you get [the legal letters] it’s a pretty shocking and heart-stopping moment.”

He believes, as does his fellow sports journalist David Walsh, a contributor to Rough Rider, that had his revelations been acted on back then, particularly by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, the doping culture that helped produce Lance Armstrong and destroyed the credibility of professional cycling wouldn’t have taken hold. Kimmage also says – and he’s passionate about this – that the deaths of some young cyclists could have been prevented.

Unsurprisingly, for such a principled man, his mission is not to say “I told you so” but to continue the work. He’s still at cycling press conferences asking tough questions – his scepticism is to the fore, and is so clear it’s almost visible. He barely acknowledges, although Rough Rider does, that many other journalists are now asking the same questions.

In the credits there’s a line that thanks his wife, Ann Kimmage – and if she hadn’t been in it, bringing a lightness to the cloud of gloom and righteous anger that seems often to surround her husband, I wouldn’t have stuck with it until the end. Last year Kimmage was commissioned by the Sunday Independent to report on the Tour de France, and the pair set off in a camper van to follow the race. There are brief glimpses of another aspect of Kimmage, the more relaxed side of his character.

Towards the end of Adrian McCarthy’s well-crafted film, one of Kimmage’s fans, the former cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, says, “Paul’s got to look on the bright side once in a while, for his own good.” By then, and with immense respect, I agree with him.

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