POSTED: September 23rd 2008

Flying Dutchman targets 2012

Van Commenee (centre): no compromise / KRWSS
Van Commenee (centre): no compromise / KRWSS

KEIR RADNEDGE / Sports Features Communications

LONDON: British athletics’ answer to Fabio Capello picked up the gauntlet of being “responsible for medals” today as the sport burst out of the starting blocks towards London 2012.

Charles Van Commenee is a 50-year-old Dutchman with a similar ruthless reputation who has been handed the newly-created, medal-focused role of head coach.

He must improve on Britain’s Beijing haul of four athletics medals and, by the time the Olympic flame is rekindled, will be under the level of scrutiny following Capello and England’s football team en route to the 2010 World Cup.

Van Commenee was in Beijing last month as performance director for the Dutch Olympic Committee and completes his year-ending contract before starting work formally in the UK in February. In the meantime, he insisted, he would be involved in all key decisions at UK Athletics.

Even before Beijing Nils De Vos, chief executive of UKA, had launched a structural review which resulted in the departure after the Games of performance director Dave Collins.

That opened the way for the appointment, to a more focused role, of Van Commenee who had been UKA’s technical director for jumps and combined sports between 2000 and 2004.

Van Commenee said: “It’s a huge challenge, a huge responsibility and, above all, a great honour to lead British athletics into the 2012 Olympics. The invitation to be responsible for results in the biggest of the Olympic sports with the host country was impossible to turn down.”

Amsterdam connection

The 50-year-old Dutchman’s connection with London and the Olympics runs back far beyond his previous spell in the UK. He said: “In Amsterdam I lived near the old track with a sign which said: ‘Fanny Blankers-Koen  trained here.’ She was the biggest star of the 1948 Games in London so there has always been a special bond.”

A reputation for compromise-free tough talking precedes Van Commenee. This stems partly – but only partly - from his criticism of heptathlete Kelly Sotherton as “running like a wimp” at the 2004 Games in Athens immediately after a poor 800m saw her take bronze rather than silver.

Van Commenee, who had coached Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold in Sydney four years earlier, did concede that the timing of the remark was misjudged.

He added: “I have the image of being the most miserable person you can meet. But I’m there to get the best out of people and you can’t please everybody.

“I like to think I am reasonable and fair. I try to be honest and clear in what I want. You have to vary your approach according to the person. Sometimes that means toughness, sometimes that means encouragement. I don’t throw compliments around so if I am complimentary then it means something.”

Any changes in coaching personnel will have to wait until after he has arrived, begun work and taken stock.

“I am not planning to make drastic changes,” he said. “I will have a good look at the combinations of athletes and coaches and, if the mixture isn’t right, then I will do something.

“But I have been away for four years and a lot of good work has been done so first I need to speak with all the key people. It would be silly to just fly in and starting dictating something new.”

Van Commenee was careful to avoid setting a medals target for London 2012. The thorny issue had still to be discussed between UK Sport and UK Athletics and he would limit himself to aiming for only “as many medals as possible.”

Back to the golden oldies

Van Commenee understood that the British public wanted a return to an era when the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson were at their medal-winning peak.

“People, and not only in Britain, always long for success as in the good old days,” he acknowledged, while politely deflecting inquiries about whether he would enlist any of the golden oldies.
“In the 1980s, for example, British athletics was very successful and we want to bring that back.

“There is talent. It’s hard to compete, for example, with the United States because of the size of population. We fish in a smaller pool. So we have to cherish all the talent we have, set a clear path towards success and make no mistakes. Then we will have a good result.

“In Beijing the team won four medals, one down on the target, but probably the team fulfilled its potential. Progress was there. Now it’s my job to make that continue and turn finalists into medallists. I’ll do my best and I will work hard every day, seven days a week.”

Whether Van Commenee is prepared for the weight and intensity of public expectation is another matter. Nothing in his c.v., even with senior roles at six previous Olympics and six world championships, comes close.

But, as he said: “Pressure comes with the job and I accept that. When you are 25 or 30 maybe it’s difficult to deal with but I’m not just starting out; I’m 50 years old.

“What I do know is that it’s important to be honest, firstly, with yourself and if you can look at yourself in the mirror and feel you have done all the right things then it’s not important what other people think.”

Keywords · Charles Van Commenee · UK Athletics · UK Sport · Kelly Sotherton · Denise Lewis · Holland · Fanny Blankers-Koen · Dutch Olympic Committee

For more information contact:
Laura Walden ()

All original materials contained in this section are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Sports Features Communications, Inc the owner of that content. It is prohibited to alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.