Charles van Commenee: 'This golden generation can put Cram, Ovett and Coe in shade'

Class of 2011 have Midas touch and can reach medal target as World Championships start tomorrow
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The Independent Online

The last time a Great British track-and-field team travelled to South Korea for a global event – the Seoul Olympics in 1988 – they did so with Daley Thompson, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Steve Cram, Sally Gunnell, Liz McColgan, Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson in tow. Between them, they won eight medals – but all of them of the Crackerjack pencil, silver or bronze consolation variety.

Twenty-three years on, the British class of 2011 are poised to strike with a multi-Midas touch over the nine-day course of the World Championships in Daegu, which open with the women's marathon at 1am tomorrow, British time. In fact, Charles van Commenee, the difficult-to-please, arch-pragmatist of a Dutchman in charge of the GB team, did not dismiss the suggestion put to him yesterday that British athletics might just have a new golden generation to rival the golden era of the late-1970s to mid-1980s, when Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Thompson and Cram were in their world-beating, world record-breaking pomp.

"It's a possibility," Van Commenee pondered. "It's certainly not impossible. We're not too far off, and I'll be a happy man if we achieve it."

The fact is that Van Commenee's squad head into the World Championships with three gold medal favourites: Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon, Mo Farah in the 10,000m and Phillips Idowu in the triple jump. They also have possible golden shots from Farah in the 5,000m and Dai Greene in the 400m hurdles.

The star-studded British teams who contested the two World Championships that were held in the 1980s, after the event was inaugurated originally on a quadrennial basis, only managed three golds between them, and four years apart – Thompson (decathlon) and Cram (1500m) prevailing in Helsinki in 1983 and Whitbread (javelin) in Rome in 1987.

Only once before has a British team won more than two gold medals at a single World Championships. That was in Stuttgart in 1993, when Christie (100m), Jackson (110m hurdles) and Gunnell (400m hurdles) all hit the bullseye as part of a GB squad that gathered a record haul of 10 medals.

Van Commenee has set his team an overall target of seven medals – an increase of one on the tally achieved in Berlin two years ago – and there is a good chance that three of them could be gold. There is a possibility that more than three of them could be gold, which would be a record for a British team in the 28-year history of the World Championships.

"The target is seven medals, including one gold," Van Commenee said. "If we achieve that, I'll be a proud and happy man, and the day after we return we will start trying to improve on that. We've had a good year so far. We've had lots of athletes being competitive in the Diamond League. We've had an outstanding result in the European Under-23s. We've had a number of national records. And our injury rate is much better than it used to be.

"So there are a lot of indications that we are heading in the right direction. Of course, we want to see confirmation of the trend here. We have a timetable that is interesting for us. Our last day of the championships is a big day, with realistically four medal shots. Internally, it is our duty to keep that in mind and not to draw any conclusions too early."

The first British medal is likely to come shortly before 2pm on Sunday, day two, with Farah gunning for Kenenisa Bekele's 10,000m title on the back of a 10-race unbeaten streak. Ennis contests the seven events of the heptathlon on Monday and Tuesday. The men's 400m hurdles final, in which Greene ought to be one of several evenly-matched contenders, is on Thursday. The final day, Sunday week, could feature a flourish of medals from Idowu in the triple jump, Farah in the 5,000m, Jenny Meadows in the 800m and the men's 4x100m relay.

Other possible medal challengers throughout the nine days include Chris Tomlinson and Greg Rutherford in the long jump, Tiffany Porter in the 100m hurdles, Perri Shakes-Drayton in the women's 400m hurdles and Goldie Sayers in the javelin. The hope for Van Commenee is that he will have sufficient athletes on the podium to suggest he is on course to achieve his long-term target for the 2012 Games.

That is a haul of eight medals, the biggest since Christie, Jackson and company achieved that figure in Seoul in 1988 – but with at least one gold.

"I've always seen the golden era as a benchmark," Van Commenee said. "I started this job thinking 'Let's do better than them'. When I was a young coach I looked up to British athletes and British coaches. I went to England many times to learn. I observed them at championships and when I was appointed as head coach of UK Athletics, the only reason that motivated me to do it was because I felt honoured.

"It meant a lot to me because of the performances of the generation of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Daley Thompson and the others. So I've always seen it as a great challenge. If we are able to match them, I will feel very proud."

If Ennis, Farah and Idowu are able to do Britain proud on the World Championships stage, it will bode well for the host nation in the principal Olympic sport at London 2012. "Athletics is an important sport in Britain," Van Commenee said. "When we are in London, at the end of the Games, people will consider it a success or failure based on medals won or lost. They will not say 'But we had a great transport system' or 'the stadiums looked quite nice and therefore it was a success'.

"Winning is important, and winning in athletics at the Olympic Games is more important than in other sports."

Golden boys (and girls)

The class of '93

GB's record haul of golds (three) and overall medals (10) from the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993:

Golds (3):

Linford Christie, 100m.

Colin Jackson, 110m hurdles.

Sally Gunnell, 400m hurdles.

Silvers (3):

John Regis, 200m.

Tony Jarrett, 110m hurdles.

Men's 4 x 100m relay (Jackson, Jarrett, Regis, Christie).

Bronzes (4):

Jonathan Edwards, triple jump.

Steve Smith, high jump.

Mick Hill, javelin.

Women's 4 x 400m relay (Linda Keough, Phylis Smith, Tracy Goddard, Gunnell).

GB World Championships medals

1983 7 (2 gold)

1987 8 (1)

1991 7 (2)

1993 10 (3)

1995 5 (1)

1997 6 (1)

1999 7 (1)

2001 2 (1)

2003 3 (0)

2005 3 (1)

2007 5 (1)

2009 6 (2)