Charles van Commenee: Van the Superman flies to the rescue of British athletics

Team GB are going Dutch to win more medals in 2012 and the ruthless Amsterdammer is the man with the Midas touch to ensure they strike gold. Simon Turnbull speaks to Charles van Commenee

It was in August 1987 that Charles van Commenee first pitched up on these shores. Sitting in a plush meeting room at the offices of UK Athletics in Solihull, he can't help laughing at the memory of his visit to the European Junior Championships at the Alexander Stadium, across the other side of Birmingham.

"I had two athletes competing there," Van Commenee recalls, "and I attended the championships with a very good friend of mine, who happens to be the head coach of Dutch athletics now. Because we didn't have any money, we stayed in a tent on the grass next to the stadium. We were told it was going to be crowded so we got there a day early and we were the only tent there all week. It was pissing down every day and we got robbed. It was an experience. I decided not to go back to Birmingham..."

And yet here he is, 22 years on, back in the suburbs of England's second city as the would-be saviour of British athletics. The Dutchman is wearing a dark grey shirt and blue trousers but he might as well be clad in a Superman cape. Such is his record in the coaching world, his reputation for taking talent and maximising its potential, great things are expected of Van Commenee as he brings his particular powers to bear on the Great Britain athletics team.

His remit as head coach of UK Athletics, the domestic governing body of the sport, is winning medals at the home Olympics in 2012. There were just the four from the British track and field team in Beijing last August – gold from Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m, silvers from Phillips Idowu in the triple jump and Germaine Mason in the high jump and bronze from Tasha Danvers in 400m hurdles.

Van Commenee arrived from Amsterdam in February talking about a 2012 medal target of "something above six". Four months into his job, he has raised his sights to eight – the tally achieved in Seoul in 1988 (six silvers, two bronzes, no golds), the highest by a British team at a non-boycott-affected Games in modern times.

The British class of '88 included Daley Thompson, Colin Jackson, Linford Christie, Steve Cram, Jonathan Edwards, Liz McColgan, Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread – all-time greats from the golden era of British athletics. "Well you have to set the standard high," Van Commenee says. "You have to aim high. I always say, 'Nobody is going to jump higher when you lower the bar'. When the expectations are high, that's the environment you're looking for.

"There's no hiding place in the Olympic Games in London. They will be perceived as a success when we win medals, not when the organisation's going smoothly or when we have nice venues. We need to win medals and ultimately I'm responsible for a number of medals in one of the most prestigious sports. I will be judged on the outcome.

"It's eight medals and I think we should win a gold at least, because in Seoul we had eight medals and no golds. But we do have some good athletes at the moment and some good athletes coming up. Yes, we will always be compared with the golden era of the Eighties. So let's see. Let's take up the challenge."

It is typical of Van Commenee – of his uncluttered, ultra-positive yet firmly pragmatic thinking – that he should choose to see the golden days of the 1980s as a challenge for the 2012 generation. For many in British athletics, for perhaps too long now, the era of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Co has been considered more of a burden, a great weight dragging down the mindset of the sport. Surely the man from Amsterdam must have detected the negativity, the perception that those glory days have gone for good?

"It's no use trying to deny and dismiss reality," Van Commenee says. "There was a golden era. It happened. You can't change it. You have to deal with it. There is a great tradition and we will be compared with it. But that's OK. If everybody understands what it takes and lives up to it then we will have a good team. And if we do well then maybe in the future they will make comparisons to 2012.

"We have had some good performances already this summer. And everybody seems to have forgotten about Mara Yamauchi [who finished second] in the London Marathon. That was a spectacular performance. There are some positive things going on. It will take a hell of a lot more to achieve our goals. But I can understand the comparison with Coe, Cram and the rest. It's one of the reasons I feel so honoured to be part of this: because British athletics is so big. Maybe not in the last eight years, but certainly because of the tradition.

"It's the same with Ajax [the Amsterdam institution of a football club]. With Ajax, I always live in the past. Not much happening since '95 but great tradition. I'm a traditional man anyway, and that's one of the nice things about this country: it honours its history. My favourite television channel is called Yesterday – history documentaries all the time. So I don't dismiss the past, because if you don't know where you're coming from, you don't know where you're going to."

Where Van Commenee has come from in his 50 years (he turns 51 a week tomorrow, when he travels back with the British team from the European Team Championships, which take place at Leiria in Portugal on Saturday and Sunday) is a youth as a sprinter whose track ambitions were curtailed by one injury too many. He started coaching when he was 19, working with 10 to 12-year-olds for four years, then rose through the ranks from club to international level. It was clear that he had a flair for the job when he turned a young Dutchwoman called Ingrid Lammertsma from a modest 39m javelin thrower into a European Junior Championship bronze medal-winning 51m thrower.

That was in 1985. A decade later his reputation had spread to such an extent he was coaching Chinese shot putter Huang Zhihong and helping her win World Championship silver in Gothenburg. In 2000 he guided Britain's Denise Lewis to Olympic heptathlon gold in Sydney. That was proof enough here of his coaching expertise and motivational powers, and more was to come in the three years he spent working for UK Athletics as technical director of jumps and combined events, from 2001 to 2004. When he took Kelly Sotherton under his wing, in 2003, she was ranked 57th in the world as a heptathlete. Twelve months later she won Olympic bronze.

Not that Van Commenee was satisfied with her improvement, famously accusing her of running "like a wimp" in the final event of the heptathlon in Athens, the 800m, when she could have improved from bronze to silver. The remark has become etched in stone on his CV, hallmarking his perceived image as some kind of ruthless Rutger Hauer character.

"Yes, I did call Kelly a wimp," he says. "It was something, in hindsight, I shouldn't have said, because the competition was over. 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 also very exceptional 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 one, Denise Lewis, had to drop out for the first time in her life. So it was a time of mixed emotions. But I said it. It happened.

"It's funny how images can be created and you find it hard to recognise yourself in them. It's based on maybe one or two incidents. My image is one of very black and white – of being merciless, harsh, blunt. Maybe it's a cultural thing. In Holland you tend to name things as they are, call a spade a spade, and perhaps sometimes that's perceived here as harsh. I don't know... I'd like to think I'm open and fair."

In reality, Van the Man is a highly affable, engagingly cerebral soul – straight-talking but refreshingly so, and always approachable. You suspect he is much the same character that he was when he first pitched up with his tent in Birmingham 22 years ago: someone with a deep-rooted passion for athletics and an abiding intrigue in what it takes to make a successful athlete.

"Yeah, it's been an interesting journey," he reflects. "I started off coaching 10-year-olds and I've coached all sorts of people: young, old, successful, not successful, clubs, international groups. It's hard to find people to have a discussion with me about things I can't relate to. When I speak to club coaches, I know because I've done it. When I speak to coaches of Olympic champions, I know. I've travelled to championships without accreditation and I've been to championships when they've rolled out the red carpet. I've done tents and I've done five-star hotels."

It was the latter treatment in Beijing last summer, when he was chef de mission of the Dutch Olympic squad. "I was performance director for all sports in Holland and in those four years I started really appreciating other sports," he says. "I spent a lot of time in sports like judo, sailing, rowing, equestrianism. I still check out the results in all sports."

In cricket, too, perhaps? Was the Amsterdammer infected by Oranje fever when his Twenty20 countrymen hit England for a metaphorical six at Lord's nine days ago? "No, I was not watching," he says. "It's funny, because it was front page here and in Holland it was three sentences on page 38: something happened in England but nobody really cared much."

So there would be no point in enquiring whether the Dutch saviour of British athletics might be capable of turning Stuart Broad into a gold-medal javelin thrower by 2012? "No," Van the Superman replies, chuckling heartily.

Dutchman's golden nuggets

On his first visit to these shores, in 1987: "Because we didn't have any money, we stayed in a tent on the grass next to the stadium. We were the only tent there all week. It was pissing down every day and we got robbed. I decided not to go back to Birmingham."

On winning medals for Team GB in 2012: "There's no hiding place in the Olympic Games in London. They will be perceived as a success when we win medals, not when the organisation's going smoothly or when we have nice venues."

On how he spends his down-time: "My favourite television channel is called Yesterday – history documentaries all the time. That's one of the nice things about this country: it honours its history."

On his image: "Maybe it's a cultural thing. In Holland you tend to name things as they are, call a spade a spade, and perhaps sometimes that's perceived here as harsh. I'd like to think I'm open and fair."

On his coaching journey: "I've travelled to championships without accreditation and I've been to championships when they've rolled out the red carpet. I've done tents and I've done five-star hotels."

On Holland's cricket win over England: "It's funny, because it was front page here and in Holland it was three sentences on page 38: something happened in England but nobody really cared much."

On being chef de mission of the Dutch squad in Beijing: "I started really appreciating other sports. I spent a lot of time in judo, sailing, rowing, equestrianism. I still check out the results in all sports."

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