Rick Broadbent, Athletics Correspondent
It is ten months that he says have felt like ten years and Charles van Commenee has still to unpack. “I feel rushed all the time,” said the man charged with delivering a new golden era.
“That’s why I don’t have a place to live and had to go through 23 boxes to find a bow tie.” The good news for domestic athletics is that he is ticking all of the most important boxes.
Van Commenee admits his first year as UK Athletics head coach has not been trouble-free. Some people have lost their jobs and others balked at his idea of having only two national centres. Meanwhile, old pros with rose-tinted glasses roused the ire of a man best termed a ruthless realist.
“The fact is it is much more difficult now than in the 1980s,” he said. “Back then, there were hardly any Africans. There was no Caribbean. The Soviet Union was one country, so there was no Ukraine or Belarus. Yet at the World Championships in August, we had the same amount of people in finals as back then. That was the main thing about Berlin; there is more optimism and positivity around the sport. There is less of the cynicism that has been in the sport for a decade.”
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Van Commenee, born in Amsterdam, bucks conventional thought in his adopted country. For a start, he says he has never expected England to win football’s World Cup. “Every time the English would be optimistic,” he said. “It would be, ‘This time we’re going to win’. I’d think, ‘No, too many weaknesses’. This time, I seriously think they are strong because the best players are spread throughout the team, not just in one area.”
That is the only prediction you will get out of Van Commenee and, while Olympic sports are in thrall to medal targets, he has a far wider vision. “I don’t do predictions, I don’t do expectations, I don’t do ambitions,” he said. “That’s for amateurs. It’s not something professionals should do because we can’t look into the future.” He makes a distinction with the target he has set. However, there was no scientific analysis of performance to bring him to his target of at least eight medals and one gold in London. It is merely that it would make London the most successful non-boycotted Olympics for British athletics.
“I know people get confused and say, ‘Charles expects eight medals’, but it’s just a target. That’s how you should judge me. You achieve your target and it’s, ‘Well done boys, good job’. You don’t and it’s, ‘What’s the problem, what’s the consequence’.”
Van Commenee has recruited a backroom team of coaches and support staff from around the globe because he says he is playing catch-up, but he would like his successor to be home-grown. Would it be a failing of his system if that was not the case? “Yes, probably,” he said. “I would prefer to have a British person in charge. You only look outside because you can’t find it inside, but in the end every foreigner goes home. These people need to have left more of a legacy than a number of medals. They need to inspire people with a British passport. That’s part of their remit.”
Berlin was a promising staging post, but as well as the six medals, there were notable breakthroughs for the likes of William Sharman and Dai Greene, the hurdlers. Lisa Dobriskey praised Van Commenee in the wake of her silver medal in the 1,500 metres, while his no-nonsense approach was perhaps best summed up by the case of Martyn Bernard, the high jumper.
Van Commenee wanted Bernard to move from Liverpool to the Lee Valley Centre in North London. When Bernard failed to do so after saying he would, Van Commenee cut his Lottery funding. Bernard quickly repented and moved. “He put his money where his mouth was, so I put him back on the list I sent to UK Sport,” Van Commenee said. “There are very few I have forced to move. Rather than bullying them, I want these two centres to be so good that athletes will think they are silly if they’re not part of it. I did it with Bernard because I see great potential. This man can win.”
Van Commenee may attract the odd “Dutch master” headline, but he is not one for painting rosy pictures. “When you have to decide that there is no place for some individuals, that causes a lot of . . . stuff,” he said. “Some had families. Some were at an age where it was not easy to find a new position. I would not say there were no waves in 2009; there were plenty.
“We’ve gone through many changes in ten months. People lost their jobs, athletes moved coaches, we went to two centres. There is also much more accountability. When you’ve been left alone and suddenly have to justify it, that’s perceived as pressure, but I function better under pressure and it keeps the athletes on their toes. Now 90 per cent is in place. We’re swinging.”