Charles van Commenee: 'It is simple. Our individual athletes need to improve'

The Brian Viner Interview: The volatile head coach of UK Athletics is using next week's European Championships as a vital step towards 2012
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The Independent Online

Charles van Commenee, the urbane 52-year-old Dutchman who is head coach of UK Athletics, wants at least one gold from the European Championships starting in Barcelona next week. From the Olympic Games in 2012 he wants eight medals overall but is targeting only one gold, an ambition considered, in some circles, to be quite literally lacklustre. "I said it at a press conference and they said, 'Charles, only one gold?' I said, 'Yes, but eight medals'. They don't care how many medals. To them, it's about how many golds."

This, Van Commenee adds, is the British way, the culture of "all or nothing" which confronts anyone working in a sport of which we have great partisan expectations, not least a Signor Capello.

"It is very black and white, there are hardly any grey areas," he says. "Before the World Cup the England team were going to reach the final and maybe win, then they lost and so now they are totally rubbish. They went from golden-plate heroes to zinc-plated zeroes. I read that somewhere and it's true. There are no nuances. The team is either 10, or one. Nobody says it is a six." So does he see himself on a mission to educate Brits into tempering our demands? "I am not arrogant enough to think that I in my orange shirt can change the culture in a country of 60 million people."

Van Commenee smiles. It is comforting to think of our athletes being in the capable hands of this eloquent, polished, highly charismatic and yet famously volatile Amsterdammer, although it is his hands which today offer the only hint of that volatility; the nails are bitten to the quick.

We are sitting in a large meeting room in the National Athletics Centre at Picketts Lock in north London, and he wasn't being entirely metaphorical about the orange shirt; he is wearing one in solidarity with his nation's footballers, for Van Commenee is a huge football devotee, a fan of Ajax and the Netherlands in that order. And so I ask him whether, as a fellow foreigner in one of British sport's top jobs, he empathises with Capello.

A shrug. "There is no reason to feel sorry for anybody in roles like his or mine. We are blessed and privileged. And anyway I don't think the colour of the passport is relevant."

So it is not an indictment of a nation's sporting infrastructure if it cannot find one of its own to run the show? "No. We are living in a global society these days, the world has become smaller. We go on training camps to South Africa, California, the Pyrenees, and we do it as if we are taking the Tube to Leicester Square. We are not judged [himself and Capello] by our nationalities, but by performance. Winning, losing, hitting targets, that is all that matters."

Nonetheless, Van Commenee concedes that part of his burden is the weight of a glorious athletic past, glory for which he was in part responsible, coaching Denise Lewis (who nicknamed him "The Volcano") to Olympic gold in Sydney 10 years ago. "And I feel an obligation to bring it back, that golden era. I want people to relate to Jessica Ennis, to Phillips Idowu, as they did to Seb Coe, Daley Thompson, Denise Lewis. 2012 is a great opportunity to do that."

An opportunity but also a whole heap of pressure. Eight medals was the haul brought home from Seoul by the excellent class of '88, which included Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Liz McColgan, yet no gold medallist. "To get eight medals, one of them gold, we probably need 15 athletes in that category. There are two years to go, and we need to improve. If the Games were held tomorrow we would not be ready."

This is perturbing but admirably candid, indeed Van Commenee rather specialises in candour, sometimes to the horror of those around him. He coached Kelly Sotherton to heptathlon bronze at the 2004 Olympic Games, and while everyone was celebrating, including Sotherton, he raged volcanically that her medal could and should have been silver. A wimp, he called her.

So what are the problems that need resolving these next couple of years? "It's simple, individual athletes need to improve. The sprinter James Dasaolu is not robust enough. Others have technical flaws. Some of the middle-distance runners have tactical weaknesses. Everyone has his/her, own little project."

OK, but what of his own rather bigger project? How did a Dutch boy from humble working-class stock rise to lead British athletes into a home-soil Olympic Games? It is an enthralling story, and I invite him to tell it from the beginning.

"I came from what one of the newspapers here described as one of the poorest pockets of Amsterdam." He laughs uproariously. "I like that expression. Whenever I go back, I say, 'Guys, we live in one of the poorest pockets'. But it is true. Both my parents were ordinary working people with modest jobs, who made sure their two sons had the education and ambition to achieve a better standard of living than they had. As a consequence of this, they have two kids they never see. My brother works as a physiotherapist in the film business in LA."

He was nine years old when he fell in love with athletics, joining the Sagitta club where the great Fanny Blankers-Koen had run. Ten years later, his competitive career was ended by back injury, but in any case he would never have reached the top. Is it this, I wonder, that made him such a fine coach, that he was never quite good enough himself?

"It helps, yes. When elite athletes, and also top footballers, become coaches, they usually train people how they were trained. They find it impossible to innovate. They say, 'I was successful, therefore this is the way to do it'. They only have one card to play. But I had to find many cards, and, of course, I made many mistakes. I started coaching at 19, and it takes many years to become skilful."

He grew up with the story of Blankers-Koen and her four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics in London as familiar to him as any Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. "She was the greatest Dutch athlete of all times, and she had been most successful in London. The London Games of Fanny Blankers-Koen, everyone knew of it. And here am I, from the same club, trying to have an impact on another London games more than 60 years later. For me that is quite special."

Female athletes loom large in the story of Charles van Commenee. With Blankers-Koen as one of his inspirations, he became a coach noted mostly for his success with women, including Sotherton, Lewis and the Chinese shot-putter Huang Zhihong. It was with Zhihong that he pulled off his greatest achievement, he tells me, and yet it had nothing to do with putting the shot.

"She was 28 when she moved to Holland to work with me. Before that she had been raised in a sporting institute in China from the age of 12, and she didn't know anything about life. She didn't know how to go to the movies, how to drive a car, how to fall in love, how to cook a meal. So my big achievement was teaching a 28-year-old Chinese athlete to cook rice." Another huge laugh. "Did it improve her as an athlete? No. But it improved her as a human being."

By 2004 Van Commenee was one of the most respected athletics coaches in the world, but his relationship with the sport rather evoked an enduring marriage; the love was still there but the romance had gone. "I remember, right at the start of my coaching career, getting a 14-year-old javelin thrower to find 16 more metres. I thought, 'Wow, I can do this', and I remember going to bed that night and all night I saw a javelin fly, and it never came down. I no longer dream like that. Now it's more business."

In strictly business terms, the team's performance at London 2012 represents his bottom line. But for now all eyes are on the European Championships. "That is the next rung on the ladder, absolutely, because 2010 is the last year we can step back to make changes technically or healthwise. If we do that in 2011 it is too late. Everything should be in place by then. So we have a strong team for Barcelona but it could be stronger. We have given some medals away, for instance by not selecting Dwain [Chambers] in the relay."

As for specifying medal targets, is he not making himself and the team hostages to fortune, rather like our old friend Capello targeting the last four of the World Cup? "No," he says, "because that is the nature of what we do in elite sports. Athletes are supreme risk-takers, and I have to lead by example. If I don't hit my target and I stay in the job, that sends totally the wrong message to everybody. We must have clear targets. I demand it of the athletes, the CEO demands it of me, the board of the CEO."

He has been in the job for almost two years now. So how does he manage a group of such disparate types? "Ah," he exclaims, as if I have finally stumbled on the $64,000 question. "That is a challenge. Very few of them are team players by nature, and they are all different. The distance runner has to hold back all the time, the sprinter has to let go, and that is reflected in their personalities. Yes, managing them is a big challenge."

I ask, finally, whether he applies to this challenge his knowledge of other sports.

"Of course. I was chef de mission [for the Netherlands)] in Beijing, so I needed an understanding of all sports. Athletes, you know, suffer from a sort of misplaced supremacy... is that good English? People in athletics think they are superior. They think they work harder than anyone else. But when you look at equestrianism, judo, track cycling, there are things they do better. The fighting spirit of the judo player, who keeps on fighting with a broken arm, you don't see that in athletics. And we are very poor in using each other's qualities. Let's say I have six or seven coaches here. Some have a good eye for rhythm, others are stronger on motivation, others on mechanics, others on injury prevention. If they would communicate better and trust each other more... but in order to do that they first have to recognise their own weaknesses." Van Commenee runs a hand through his slicked-back hair, and smiles. "And that's not easy."

Van Commenee's wisdom

"She ran like a wimp and didn't win the medal that was easy to get."

On the heptathlete Kelly Sotherton after she could win "only" bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"I didn't coach her only as a shot-putter. I also had to teach her how to cook rice. The girl was on a discovery journey."

On coaching Chinese world champion shot-putter, Huang Zhihong, in 1993.

"It is pointless to take athletes who are simply not good enough."

On Britain's poor performance at the World Indoors in Qatar in March.

"Athletics is meaningless in the Netherlands, and that is why this job is a challenge for me."

On his job at UK Athletics.

"Arrogance"

On why the Netherlands' football team has such a poor record in penalty shoot-outs at tournaments.

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