Are tactics of coach brilliant or bullying?

Straight-talking Van Commenee reveals his job is all about business, not making friends – as British triple-jumper Phillips Idowu can testify
Click to follow

Charles van Commenee and the Olympic Games. The two have not always enjoyed the most harmonious of relationships. In 1992, Van Commenee travelled to the Barcelona Games as a personal coach to a member of the Dutch team. After the first day, he was thrown out of the athletes' village following a disagreement with the Dutch chef de mission. He watched the rest of the Games at home on television "My biggest triumph of all times is being kicked out of the Olympic village and then 16 years later coming back as chef de mission," the 53-year-old Amsterdammer reflected yesterday. "Stand up for your principles and it comes your way."

Van Commenee has become renowned for standing up for his principles in the course of a highly successful coaching career that has taken him from the depths of that Olympic ejection in Barcelona to the highs of guiding Britons Denise Lewis and Kelly Sotherton to Olympic heptathlon medals, to being chef de mission of the Dutch Olympic squad in all sports in Beijing in 2008, to head coach of the British athletics team preparing for a home Games in London.

Right now, Van Commenee is standing firm in the midst of a public spat with Phillips Idowu, one of his major hopes for a medal in 2012. He is refusing to proffer the public apology Idowu demanded last week, five weeks on from the head coach's public criticism of the world champion triple jumper about the circumstances of his withdrawal from the GB squad for the European Team Championships in Stockholm.

Yesterday, Van Commenee insisted he couldn't "see the need" to apologise. Was the Dutchman not concerned, though, about the effect his patently negative relationship with a potential Olympic gold medal winner might have? "I never do hypothetical questions," he replied. "The future will teach us.

"Someone asked me about the effect of Usain Bolt's presence on the other 100m competitors in the Olympic Stadium next year and I said, 'Virtually nothing, because elite athletes have the ability to focus on their own business, no matter what sort of noise of people are around – also, no matter what sort of relationship they have with their parents, their fiancée or their head coach.' They are focused, in this case, on jumping far. The rest is not relevant.

"I don't have a relationship with athletes of a buddy-buddy nature at all. I have a very businesslike relationship. It's not a friendship. As a young coach, I used to make that mistake. I was quite close to a couple of the athletes I used to coach, and I was not as effective as I was at a later age. You're not objective. If you keep your distance, you see things clearer.

"Let's call it clinical. I have a clinical relationship with the people I work with and a warm relationship with my friends."

Van Commenee has said before that he has remained a friend with only one athlete he has coached. "Correct," he said. "It's not a British athlete. It's a Dutch athlete."

Still, as British athletes, Denise Lewis and Kelly Sotherton remain indebted to the straight-talking man from Amsterdam for guiding them on the Olympic podium. Perhaps above all else, Van Commenee is known for having publicly chastised Sotherton for "running like a wimp" in the 800 metres, the final event of the heptathlon, in Athens in 2004. His charge may have finished with an unexpected bronze medal but had she pushed harder she might have claimed the silver.

What tends to be overlooked is the fact that Van Commenee's ultra-professional approach transformed Sotherton from a part-time athlete, who in 2003 was working as a debt collector and failed to make the British team for the World Championships, into an Olympic medallist a year later. Sotherton herself will never forget that particular debt.

"Charles made the difference between me being 57th in the world one year and an Olympic bronze medallist the next," she said. "I can understand why he called me a wimp but I wish people would forget it. He was just being emotional, and that's what all coaches should be like when their athletes don't do what they expect."

Van Commenee himself regrets being overcome by the emotion of the occasion in Athens in 2004. "It was something, in hindsight, I shouldn't have said, because the competition was over," he confessed in these pages two years ago. "In coaching you try to say things that make a difference to the athlete during the competition. So it was actually rather unprofessional.

"It was emotional for me, because I'm a rational person. It was an emotional two days because I had to coach two athletes at the same time and one, Kelly, was going really well and the other, Denise Lewis, had to drop out for the first time in her life."

Lewis had also been injured at the 2000 Olympics, yet Van Commenee still managed to guide her to the top of the podium in Sydney. He did so by getting her to focus on the positives and disregard the pain.

"For me, the mental side is what makes the difference," Van Commenee said during his time as Lewis's coach. "Every athlete, I think, has a secret combination of buttons that makes them tick, and it's my job to find out the combination."

The Dutchman has been busy doing just that, having engineered an opportunity for members of the British team to get an advance feel of the Olympic Stadium track – as guest competitors in the official test event, the British Universities' Championships, in May next year. "Some need to look in every corner of the stadium before they feel comfortable," he said. "A few, like Phillips Idowu and Jessica Ennis, don't want to take the opportunity. They want to get that buzz of the new stadium the first day they walk in for the Olympics. I can understand that. In the end, it's still a 400m track; you just have to keep the grass on the left-hand side. That doesn't change."

Comments