Sport on TV: Brazen shyness and the well-groomed hangdog look

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The Independent Online
It seems only fair to begin with a minor clarification. Certain passages in last week's column - the ones which could conceivably have been headlined "Time for this Spineless Schmoozer to Shuffle Off Back to Radio" - might have led some readers to believe that John Inverdale had turned into the sporting equivalent of Richard Madeley. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, as his interview with Will Carling on last Monday's edition of On Side (BBC1) fully demonstrated. Sport on TV welcomes this opportunity to set the record straight, and naturally regrets any confusion that may have been caused.

All right, so the first televised chat with Carling since he managed to crown himself King Rat was the interviewing equivalent of an open goal, but Inverdale still stuck his chance away with a crowd-pleasing shimmy or two. "Do you accept that your reputation is shot?" was one, and the faintly incredulous: "Do you think you've done anything wrong?" was another.

Off-screen, they are probably acquainted, but when the questions started, you would never have known. At the outset, Inverdale promised to move on to discuss rugby in due course, but instead he subjected the most brittle public image in sport to sustained and cunningly applied pressure. And what an extraordinary performance it drew from Carling, perhaps the most gripping in an interview since his former gym partner appeared on Panorama. Sporting a hangdog look that must have taken hours in front of a mirror to perfect, Carling shuffled his feet, muttered his pleas for a little understanding and spent a lot of time staring at his hands. Sadly, the cameras did not get close enough to reveal whether, in true Ron Davies style, he had scrawled "humble" on the back of them in thick black-felt tip.

Carling looked rather like one of the trailer-park schmucks on Jerry Springer - "I'm not a love rat!" - but without the supporting cast of wronged lovers and relatives lining up to take a pop (and yes, let's dwell for a moment on the thought of an enraged Gary Lineker doing his best to throttle him). Nor, unlike on Jerry's show, was it possible to gauge whether the audience was actually buying any of this stuff, although his complaint that "when I go to sleep, I don't get to kiss my son goodnight" did seem to be followed by a few stifled gasps at the shamelessness of it all.

So too did the line that went, "I'm not arrogant or selfish, I'm shy." So shy, in fact, that he set up a PR firm a few years ago with the principal aim of promoting himself. But the real point of this performance, of course, was that whatever else he may be, Carling is desperate. The media career which he had carefully mapped out is in ruins, his testimonial match has been cancelled and by his own admission, funds are running low.

And this is the man who used to have a sideline pushing books on business management. As Carling himself put it in one of the very few incontestable statements of the entire interview: "Whatever I do next, I had better get it right."

If it was put to a public vote, the top choice for Carling's new career might well be free diving, the bizarre sport which featured in QED (BBC1) the following evening and is otherwise known as Holding Your Breath Until You Go Blue. Participants earn marks in one of two ways, either by diving as deep as possible into a nearby ocean or by staying submerged for as long as they can in a swimming pool. In both cases, the only equipment allowed is a pair of swimming trunks and a single, very deep breath.

It is a distinctly minority pursuit, and highly dangerous (although just in case anyone had missed the point, a warning over the end credits solemnly advised that "holding your breath underwater runs the risk of blackout, and even death"). But it is definitely a sport. We can be sure of this because free diving has occasionally featured in the afternoon schedules on Sky Sports, padding out the monster trucks and big-game fishing.

And as QED's fascinating programme demonstrated, free divers may be mad, but they are not stupid. They are capable of the sort of mind-over-matter feats which are supposed to be the preserve of Indian mystics, overriding the most basic instinct of them all to eke out the air in their lungs, and reducing their heart-rates into the low teens in the process.

It may not be the most gripping of spectator sports, although the sight of a dozen apparently lifeless corpses floating in a pool the same way the minor hoods always ended up in Fifties' B-movies was certainly different. And they might even have a thing or two to teach other sportsmen and women about stress management, since the only way to win is to remain totally calm at all times. It could give a whole new meaning to the concept of footballers going for an early bath.