Charles van Commenee: 'I got rid of cynicism in UK athletics'

Exclusive: The head coach of UK Athletics explains why failing to hit his own medal target for London 2012 means he is leaving next month

Outside the Booking Office on the upper level at St Pancras Station, a familiar face walks by, looking a little lost. As the author of the deftly-plotted ‘Jim Stringer, Steam Detective’ novels, Andrew Martin can be confidently expected to work out where he is going.

Inside the Booking Office, the restaurant and bar that leads into the Renaissance Hotel, Charles van Commenee has already arrived. The coach who guided Britain’s track and field athletics team – Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Co. – to the London Olympics has no idea where his professional life will lead him after his contract with UK Athletics expires next month.

“I pack my belongings into a friend’s van and catch the last ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on 23 December,” he says. “Beyond that, I have no idea what I might end up doing. I have a completely open mind. I have no strategy job-wise.

“I’m going to spend a few weeks in Amsterdam, just to relax a bit. Then I’m going to travel a bit. I’m going to South America for a month or so.”

“Whereabouts in South America?” one naturally enquires. At the end of London 2012, when van Commenee was considering pleas for him to stay on at UK Athletics, there was talk that he was being lined up to lead the Brazilian track team at the Rio Olympics.

“In Rio to start with,” he says, laughing, “ because a good friend of mine lives there. From there, I’m going to do other trips – to Chile and to Buenos Aires. Then I’ll see...I’ll see who rings my bell.”

You do not need to be a Jim Stringer to start putting two and two together and come up with a call from the home team at Rio 2016. “You shouldn’t do that,” van Commenee says. “It’s purely coincidence. It really is.”

But if the chance presented itself, would the 54-year-old Dutchman not be interested in guiding the home athletics team for a second successive Games?  “It’s so unlikely,” he says, "because of the language. I could only do that job properly if I could have meaningful conversations and I can only do that in Dutch and English.”

It is not difficult to imagine van Commenee’s classic observations getting somewhat lost in translation: that the public perception of Britain’s injury-prone athletes was that they were a bunch of “pussies and wankers”; that Twitter was a medium “for clowns and attention seekers with too much time on their hands.” Neither is it difficult to imagine the British sporting landscape being quite the same without the headline-grabbing pearls of wisdom from the straight-talking Amsterdammer.

Ironically, the main reason that van Commenee is getting ready to pack his bags and step into an uncertain future is precisely because he has succeeded in altering that pussyfooting mindset – and indeed the public perception – of Britain’s runners, jumpers and throwers. At the centre of his attack on the lax attitudes that went before was his instilling of a no-excuse culture that ultimately extended to his own door. While UK Sport set Britain’s athletes a medal target of between five and eight for London 2012, van Commenee set the bar at eight and said he would walk away if it was not achieved. Despite being urged to reconsider after his team finished with six, he stuck to his guns.

Four of those were golds, so CVC achieved what his most celebrated track and field compatriot FBK – Fanny Blankers-Koen – famously accomplished at a London Olympics. “That’s true," he says, laughing. “Success can be measured in many different ways. And I would say that if you look at all the factors from every angle it was a success.

“But the thing is I have been very clear throughout these four years about what targets mean and the difference between a target and an expectation and a prediction and an ambition.  Then the question came all the time, ‘What happens if you don’t hit the target?’  So I said, ‘I will leave.’

“I could easily have answered all the time, ‘If it doesn’t happen, we will look into the reasons why we didn’t hit the target. Then we will make changes and adjustments.’ Which is fair. That’s what happens 99 out of 100 times.

“But I wanted to make a clear statement about these things because it helped – and still helps - the new culture of no excuses and sanctions. In other words accountability is important, and I wanted to put my credibility and my destiny on the line – saying, ‘Guys, this is a serious business. We need to change here. And I will lead.’

 “The leader has to lead by example. And I wanted to make this a big thing during these four years. Now, I have to take the consequences too, because if I don’t I’ll set the wrong example – by saying that there is an excuse. That’s exactly the message I don’t want to give.

“At the moment a number of staff are in the process of losing their jobs and it would be almost impossible for me if I would have stayed in my position despite missing the target.

“Working in athletics, in high performance environment, is not a comfortable thing. If you want to have a comfortable life you probably have to work in your own garden or in a library. But when it is high performance you have to beat others, with the whole world watching.

“That’s a very uncomfortable place to be. And British athletics has been comfortable for many decades. That has changed. It is clear that there is a high degree of accountability in British athletics. I think the cynicism has gone. People have high expectations. The athletes understand there is no place for excuse.”

There is no doubt that van Commenee has transformed British athletics in his four years as head coach at UK Athletics – following on from his past success here in making Denise Lewis an Olympic champion and Kelly Sotherton an Olympic heptathlon bronze medallist. Indeed, he transformed it to such an extent that a 50 per cent improvement on the medal front from Beijing was deemed to be a failure in his eyes -  and that British records were set in 11 different events this year (compared to three in 2008).

In doing so, he also became the subject of a cult parody on Twitter. Not that anyone has managed to discover the identity of the tweeter whose posts as ‘Charles van Comedy’ have brought much amusement to van Commenee.

 “I like that – that nobody knows,” he says. “It’s a good mystery.”

The same could be said of the future of the Dutchman who will always get a name-check when the 2012 credits roll – rather like his brother. If you look closely, you will see Andre van Commenee’s name on screen at the end of Indiana Jones and The Empire of The Sun.

 “My brother is a physiotherapist who by chance got one of the world’s leading stuntmen as a patient in Amsterdam,” Charles explains. “Andre ended up being contracted to work with Steven Spielberg and moved out to Hollywood.”

As for the next professional move for van Commenee himself, we shall have to wait and see.

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