Dutch coach drives Britain on
Van Commenee cites Michelangelo as his model as records fall and medal prospects rise
Sitting in the upstairs room of a hostelry near the central London courts, Charles van Commenee has been talking about how folk thought he was putting a noose around his neck when, on becoming head coach of UK Athletics two years ago, he said he was aiming for eight medals at the 2012 Olympic Games. That tally was last achieved by a British track and field team in Seoul in 1988.
He mentions Michelangelo. He has already spoken of Holly Bleasdale, Jenny Meadows and Colin Jackson. Perhaps this Michelangelo chap is a rising Italian shot putter.
"He said once that the danger is not aiming too high and falling short but in putting your ambitions too low and hitting the target all the time," Van Commenee says. "You should never put your targets too low because that's not an incentive to do better."
One year and two weeks out from the days of reckoning in the London Olympic Stadium, Britain's athletes are raising the bar. At the end of 2010 four British athletes occupied top-six placings in the world rankings: Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Phillips Idowu (triple jump), Dai Greene (400 metres hurdles) and Perri Shakes-Drayton (400m hurdles). Midway through this pre-Olympic summer, the number has doubled: Ennis, Idowu, Greene, Bleasdale, Mo Farah, Lawrence Okoye, Chris Tomlinson and Goldie Sayers. With relays to factor in, plus the medal potential of others, the prospect of British track and field hitting Van Commenee's 2012 target are starting to look promising.
Not since 1980, when Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Daley Thompson and Allan Wells struck gold in Moscow, has there been a more prolific summer. There have been six national records in the 2011 outdoor season, half set by 19-year-olds: Bleasdale in the pole vault, Okoye in the discus and Sophie Hitchon in the hammer. The chances are there will be at least four more before the summer ends and the Diamond League meeting in Birmingham a week ago attracted a sell-out crowd to the Alexander Stadium.
There was Greene fending off the world's best in the 400m hurdles, Farah burning a 54-second last lap in the 5,000m, Bleasdale finishing second in the pole vault and the 5ft 1in "pocket rocket" Jenny Meadows blasting to victory in the 800m.
As Van Commenee is swift to point out, there are a host of coaches responsible for the upturn in fortunes. Still, the Amsterdammer's influence can be seen in the kind of mentality demonstrated by Greene, Farah and Co in Birmingham.
"I'm not pretentious enough to think I can change the nature of the British people," Van Commenee says. "When I find it difficult to say something about people who Twitter, what can I say about the whole nation? It's very difficult."
Still, having suggested a decade ago that the Dutch football team were hopeless at penalty shoot-outs because they were "too arrogant" to practise – long before he suggested Twitter was for "clowns" – Van Commenee could be excused for believing that the British psyche is naturally downbeat.
"I think in general people are negative in this country," he says. "Certainly if you compare them with north America. So a little bit of optimism to get rid of cynicism is helpful in sport. Because if you don't believe that you can do it, then it's not going to happen. Of course, I can't change everybody. But I think, overall, there's more optimism among athletes and among the sport now. And success breeds success, obviously. When other athletes see Jenny Meadows winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in Berlin [in 2009], then suddenly everybody thinks, 'Well she can do it. Now I have a chance as well.'
"That had a big effect on others. Because people, athletes, know that Jessica Ennis can win. But nobody thought that Jenny Meadows could win a medal. I remember clearly that night there was a buzz in the camp.
"And obviously it's happening more and more. If Holly Bleasdale can go to 4.70m in the pole vault, I'm sure there will be other girls thinking, 'OK, 4.50m is nothing.' It is important the momentum increases and does not stop in 2012. Our sport is under threat. Global interest in athletics is decreasing. It is important we have the new generation creating interest."
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