Sport on TV: Oar-inspiring king of pain almost sinks without trace

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The Independent Online

Sir Steve Redgrave is right at the top of anyone's list of British sporting heroes. But if you had to undertake a regime of gruelling physical conditioning, the five-time Olympic gold medallist is the last man you would want to see standing by the rowing machine. More early grave than Redgrave.

In 'Redgrave's Raw Recruits' (ITV4, Thursday), he finds 40 Liverpudlian volunteers after making an appeal at half-time at Anfield, and tries to make them into a rowing eight that can compete at the Henley Royal Regatta.

He has seven months to transform a bunch of Scousers who have largely found themselves up a certain creek without a paddle. If their manner might intimidate your average member of the rowing fraternity, it doesn't faze Redgrave as he barks his own brand of sports psychology: "Why don't you keep your mouth shut and just get out there and do what you're asked to do?" Well, it worked for him.

For most of the recruits, recreation means drugs. John O'Brien, their fitness trainer, has an unusual task. Performance-enhancing drugs may have become the bane of top-level sport, but his charges are more into substances that impede performance, that let you float in a way that has nothing to do with water. Instead of lecturing them, he settles for a simple piece of advice: "You've got to cut down."

And cut down they did. Within three weeks the 40 had become 26. By the end of part one, the numbers had been whittled down to 18, both by selection and by mishap. Mikey had to leave because he was sent to prison for 10 months for assault. It was a sad end to his new dreams, not least because he had rescued one of his fellow crew members when their boat capsized and his feet were trapped under the water.

The concluding episode does not appear in this week's 'Radio Times', but presumably it will be shown during the Olympic Games. The timing is, of course, neat, but it is also cloaked in controversy, because the programme was supposed to be shown in four parts in December 2006, on the flagship channel ITV1. It may be giving the game away, but it was rumoured that the series was pulled when the team narrowly failed to qualify for Henley. This is a shame, given how good the programme is – superior to Amir Khan and Eddie Jordan when they tried to weave similar magic – and given what an effect it had on the youths' self-esteem.

"It's a very positive programme," Redgrave told the 'Liverpool Echo' newspaper. "We live in an era of a lot of so-called reality TV but this is more real than a lot of shows. It's not make-believe and there weren't all sorts of different freaks being brought in, so the delay has been very disappointing." Maybe ITV will be ready by 2012. In the meantime, Sir Steve had better go and count his medals.