TELEVISION / We have the technology, we can rebuild him

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The Independent Culture
AS THE aerodynamic credit sequence sped us into the visual gymnasium that is The Contenders (BBC 1), the first item of information was the name of the narrator. Although this is the first television job in years in which Sean Bean has not been contractually obliged to remove his underwear, the implication of his merely vocal involvement is clear: if you train as diligently as the athletes you are about to see, you too can own a streamlined, gold-medal-winning posterior.

Or maybe you just want to run fast. This new series bills itself as a training manual that ordinary mortals can aspire to but, let's be honest, the physical specimens on show here have reached levels of fitness that are slightly less attainable than owning a pet giraffe or a palazzo on the Grand Canal. The hurdler Colin Jackson attributes his speed out of the blocks to going on the B of the bang - an easy formula to follow so long as you're not the type who falls out of bed on the M of the alarm.

In reality, The Contenders provided an insight into the way training has mutated into a science. Nowadays, unless you can do your jogging in a laboratory staffed by medical teams armed with cardiac monitors, you might as well keep your Nikes clean for the disco. Unless, that is, you can do it in a swimming-pool - the latest fad in fitness. The middle- distance runner Yvonne Murray does four miles inside a rubber ring in her local pool because it's easier on the joints. The only thing not explained here was why she always gets stuffed out of sight in major championships.

Let's put to one side the quibble that all this know-how is turning athletics into robotics. On a mental level, we're still dealing with human fallibility, and research clearly still needs to be done in this area. For example, there must be a common psychological profile of people who do essentially unnatural sports. In gymnastics, or pole-vaulting, the body has to be taught to ignore the sensible arrangements of gravity. Surely the men in white coats who pass for coaches these days could devise an IQ test to establish just how dumb you have to be to fly upside down over a stick six metres up.

While some athletes have to be stupid, their support staff have to truffle for knowledge in the most bizarre corners. The coach of the 800m runner Martin Steele has evolved a theory about biorhythms, from which he has determined that his charge runs well in summer. Luckily, the athletics season falls just at the right time. Apparently, all middle-distance runners not born at the end of September can hang up their spikes now.

The Contenders did console you with news that elements of the top fitness regimes are a doddle. 'As far as training is concerned,' muttered Bean sultrily, 'less is more. The art lies in knowing when not to train.' We could all make a start on that part right now.

The one part of the body an athlete can ignore is the face, the only area that the rest of us care about. In a bitty but lively study, The Mask (BBC 2) considered the fascism of physiognomies. An interview with the model Annabel Schofield highlighted the neurotic self-criticism of the absurdly beautiful, as a result of which she decided to submit her nose to the surgeon's knife. (Surely it's statistically proven that no one in the world likes their nose?)

It did seem a bit odd that the hospital footage was so intrusively good, and lo, when Annabel removed her bandages her nose was uncut. Conned by her looks, we had supposed her vain and stupid enough to go through with it. The credits revealed that Annabel Schofield had been acting, playing someone called 'Annabel'. If she's not as not dumb as she looks, she'll never be a pole-vaulter.