Thursday 18 January 2018

John Boland: Drugs and sport? Now tell us something we didn't know

Cheat: Ben Johnson winning at the Seoul Olympics of 1988
Cheat: Ben Johnson winning at the Seoul Olympics of 1988

I'm all for our national broadcaster screening advance programmes about an Olympics in which most Irish athletes are likely to fail honourably, but I'm afraid that sports journalist Ian O'Riordan got on the wrong side of me right from the outset of Faster, Higher, Stronger (RTÉ One).

Sport, he sweepingly announced, "has always been the perfect expression of the human spirit". And I thought to myself: well, so much for Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart and James Joyce, none of whom was especially adept at pole vaulting, shot putting or beach volleyball.

Anyway, when Ian was a lad, he was besotted by Ben Johnson in the Seoul Olympics, only to find out that his hero had feet of anabolic steroids. This caused an aghast young Ian to muse: "Suddenly, it all seemed to add up to one big lie."

In Monday night's film, he sought an answer to the question that has been troubling him ever since about competitive sport: "How much of this can we believe in?"

Not an awful lot, as it turned out, though before the film reached its disappointingly inconclusive conclusion, the viewer had to endure the spectacle and sound of Ian in hectoring, holier-than-thou vein as he told of the "famous headline" to his Irish Times story about middle-distance runner Martin Fagan testing positive for a blood-doping agent.

Indeed, Martin's transgression meant, in Ian's solemn opinion, that he had "hit the self-destruct button on his career".

He mentioned Michelle de Bruin twice, both times dismissively, though he might have pointed out that despite what he called the "cloud of doubt" over her achievement, no one ever found her guilty of anything when she won her three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics and that she still retains those medals.

But she has been written out of history -- not least by RTÉ, which has never sought her expertise as a commentator on subsequent Olympics -- and Ian clearly wasn't of a mind to contradict the prevailing establishment consensus.

The film had some striking soundbites -- I especially liked the dry tone of Irish Sports Council anti-doping chairman, Brendan Buckley, when he remarked that any young rugby player's notion of "becoming Paul O'Connell or Brian O'Driscoll out of a bottle is something that should be discouraged" -- but nothing new was said.

Indeed, all that lingered was Ian's fretting over a culture of cheating that for many of us has long dispelled any innocence we might once have harboured about international sporting competiveness.

Without any soapbox moralising, The Race That Shocked The World (BBC4) did a brilliant job of telling what exactly happened during the infamous 100-metre final at the Seoul Olympics.

The film's first coup was to get all of the eight finalists -- Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell and four others -- to recall what happened on that day in 1988 and to reflect on their careers and lives thereafter.

Having done that, it then shaped the present-day interviews and the documentary footage into an engrossing and chastening 60 minutes.

However, Twenty Twelve (BBC Two), which next week comes to the end of its second series, has been the unmissable contribution to pre-Olympics programming. I haven't seen every episode (the title is so humdrum that my eye usually glides over it in the listings), but it's been a sublimely funny spoof documentary, with Hugh Bonneville in peerless form as the London Olympics's hapless head of deliverance, Ian Fletcher.

However, his performance is matched by those of Jessica Hynes as his jargon-addicted idiot PR adviser, Siobhan, and Olivia Colman as his lovelorn middle-aged personal assistant, Sally.

Last week, Ian was wounded by a malfunctioning starting pistol, leaving him confined this week to his hospital bed, where he warned of an upcoming Inclusivity Day tree-planting: "If we get this wrong, we're in danger of running out of feet to shoot ourselves in."

Siobhan, for her part, was spouting her usual gobbledegook, telling Ian's team: "If we don't get airborne on this, we're so going to be eating tarmac."

At the tree-planting ceremony that concluded the episode and which was conducted in the presence of the media, no one remembered to bring an acorn, so they planted a chocolate-coated nut instead. Priceless.

In Caught Red Handed (TV3), shoplifter Gary said he had taken to using the mainline train for his thieving excursions because "after a while you're known in your own area".

Clever thinking, Gary, who, "in a good week", makes over €1,000 from his exploits. But did he not feel guilty? "No way! You get robbed enough in this country!"

Meanwhile, Creedon's Cities (RTÉ One) found the radio DJ in Galway, about which he mused: "The common denominator seems to be smiling people -- there's craic going on in Galway."

Faith and begorrah, who would have thought it?

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