Sport on TV: Lifting lid on freaks of nurture really stretches the imagination

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The Independent Online

In a fight situation they say “Always look out for the little guy”. But having watched The World’s Strongest Child (Channel 4, Wednesday), it’s the little guy’s dad you’ve really got to watch out for. Mark Dolan revisited the boy he first met in a documentary in 2000, child bodybuilder Richard Sandrak, and sought out similar muscle-bound minors. The heavy impression is of children shouldering the burden of their fathers’ expectations – and the weight of their resentment too.

Sandrak is now 16, of Ukrainian descent but living in California. He has cut all ties with his father, who was imprisoned for assaulting his mother. At the Santa Monica film market he watches for the first time a film he made three years before, ‘Little Hercules in 3-D’, with Hulk Hogan as Zeus and Elliott Gould as Socrates. It’s not one for the purist.

This may be Hollywood but back in Ukraine there is even less reality and this time, sadly, it’s in the name of sporting glory. Varya Akulova, also 16, wanted to get to London 2012 but has failed to get into the Olympic team because the officials objected to her father Yuri acting as her coach.

Yuri nurses a bizarre sense of grievance against the army for depriving him of two years of his life and says things like “The state will not put its dirty hands on my family again”. They had been appearing in a circus to make ends meet but now they perform their act in a nightclub. Bemused teenagers look on as Varya lifts both her parents up with her legs.

Now Varya is off to college, fleeing the insanity of it all, and her three-year-old sister Barbie is being trained up to take her place. Yuri hopes her age will attract more people to the show. He makes her train four hours a day and she can lift 18kg, more than her body weight. Like Varya, Barbie had screws wrapped in bundles of cloth attached to her limbs just days after she was born.

It takes 44 minutes for Dolan to mention the stress these young bodies are being put through. He must have been too busy thinking about all the psychological damage. The British medal hope for 2012, 14-year-old Zoe Smith, took up weightlifting against her mother’s wishes when she failed to make the grade as a gymnast two years ago. But in this programme it’s simply child abuse, and the parents are the real freaks.

* It is 30 years since the US Embassy siege in Tehran, and Iran and The West (BBC4, Thursday) showed a wrestling match between Shawn Charles and Mahdy Kaveh in the Iranian capital in 1998, the first time a US athlete had set foot in the Islamic Republic since ties were severed two decades before. Next month nine American wrestlers will go there for the prestigious Takhti Cup. It’s good to know that even with the cloud of nuclear armament hanging over them, the two sides can still have a good healthy scrap.

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