Sport on TV: Missing answers add insult to injuries

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YOU HAVE to feel a little sorry for On The Line (Wednesday, BBC 2). They've spent several years building themselves up from a lightweight threesegment per half-hour sports magazine into a middleweight single-topic investigative programme, and just as they achieve this, the heavy-hitters of Panorama and World In Action move into their territory, garnering mass audiences and tabloid headlines: with their Sugar/Venables/Clough specials last year.

Of course, you could say that On The Line's establishment as the only serious investigative documentary about sport has opened up the area for the others, and I would guess that, on balance, this would be the fairer view. But I can't help feeling that the series still seems somewhat isolated on BBC 2, especially with this latest run clashing with Coronation Street. What divisions that must cause in the Bernard Manning household.

So it deserves better scheduling, and probably a bit more clout from the top brass at the BBC. There were rumours last year that it had been 'blackspotted' by the grey men with calculators, but several strong episodes - notably the horse-doping 'Needle Man' saga which had the Jockey Club choking on its port - seem to have secured its immediate future.

Already this new series has had another look at the continuing low life of Diego Maradona . . . drugs, sex, let's just say he's ideally qualified to run for Parliament. The second programme had the tabloids frothing with a greyhound shocker: not the familiar territory of bent races, but the lurid practice of feeding live rabbits to young greyhounds as part of their training, and the cruel abandonment of dogs once their racing lives were over.

This week's edition, by comparison, came under the heading of 'worthy but dull' - a brisk look at the inability, or unwillingness, of NHS doctors to treat sports injuries, as suffered by the general public, properly or sympathetically.

A fusillade of statistics opened the debate: 30 million Britons took an active part in some sport, and there were an estimated 29 million sports injuries per year. Now hang on, this implied a casualty rate on a par with the First World War and begged the question of who were the lucky one million not getting injured and what were they playing. Table tennis? Blow football?

It was soon made clear who the Grim Reaper of the major sports was: a rugby player with a gaping head-wound and the programme's presenter, John Inverdale, in his Esher RFC kit were enlisted to endorse the view that the hooligans' game played by gentlemen was the single biggest contributor to the casualty wards.

It might have been interesting at this point to have wheeled on some of the rugbymad medics - say, J P R Williams or Jonathan Webb - to throw light on the paradox between their sport and their profession, but the programme was too busy spilling out more figures and the results of a specially commissioned opinion poll . . . '90 per cent unhappy with doctors' attitude . . . 90 per cent say there's room for improvement . . .' and so on.

I suppose the half-hour format limits the potential for subplots so it was perhaps understandable that they should stick relentlessly to this one narrative: that sports medicine needs to become part of a General Practitioner's culture and learning. But it had the deadening effect of producing a one-sided argument.

There was little time to explore the observation that if sections of the NHS can discriminate against smokers, might they also do it against injured sports people on a 'serves you right' basis? What about the attitude of employers to losing employees injured in sport, or of insurance companies unwilling to pay out on what they might see as self-inflicted wounds?

There was only one dissenting voice, that of a professor who felt that specialist sports clinics would lead to 'falling-off-ladder clinics' and other absurdities. Perhaps because of his isolationist position, I was inclined to sympathise with the professor's view. And as someone whose only sports injury is now likely to come from an inadvertent Fosbury Flop in the bath, I will admit a certain bias.

But would I be right in feeling, as with that dreadful exercise in self-glorification, the triathlon, that certain levels of amateur sport are heading into the equally hazardous areas of narcissism, designer-wear fixation and self-absorption, of which specialist treatment becomes a part?

There are already a growing number of private sports clinics - some glimpsed in the programme - queuing up to take money off this modern breed. So isn't it in their interests to create a climate of uncertainty about levels of NHS treatment, and wasn't the On The Line programme helping the momentum? The great thing about watching investigative programmes is you end up seeing conspiracies everywhere.

Giles Smith is on holiday.