Van Commenee lets mask slip as excitement builds

With the Olympics just four months away, Britain's record medal haul in Istanbul even provoked a reaction from the cool coach

It was put to Charles van Commenee that he might not be too excited, even though the Great Britain track and field team were preparing to leave Istanbul yesterday with a record haul of nine medals from the World Indoor Championships. "Excited?" the head coach replied. "The last time I was excited I was sitting with my grandmother on a train. That was 48 years ago."

However, those who saw the Dutchman at close quarters as Perri Shakes-Drayton held off the fast-finishing Sanya Richards-Ross to clinch Britain's second gold in the women's 4x400m relay final on Sunday would beg to differ. One witness swore that Van Commenee's reaction was reminiscent of the Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe's when his underdogs beat mighty Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup final at Wembley.

That rates at the absolute peak on the excitement scale for some of us, so for all that Van Commenee likes to maintain his public image as the coolest, most collected of pragmatists, you can bet he was pretty damned animated. And with good reason, too: Christine Ohuruogu had returned to form with a barnstorming third leg run as our one reigning Olympic athletics champion and the rest of the 4x400m team emerged as candidates for one of the eight medals that the coach from Amsterdam has targeted from his squad at London 2012.

When pressed to name the highlights of the action in Turkey, Van Commenee did pick out the women's relay. "We selected the 4x400 women's team to find out how close we are now to the top nations, because at the outdoor World Championships last summer we were more than four seconds behind a medal. That was why we selected Christine Ohuruogu and now we have learned that we are in the mix.

"Ohuruogu is back, completely. I've seen that in training and it's good to see that here, because she is not always a great relay athlete. But now she is inspired and that is very good news for London."

Indeed it is. And even more so for Ohuruogu, who has suffered three seasons of injury and indifferent form since her golden moment in Beijing. "She has turned it around," Van Commenee added.

And the other highlights for the head coach? "In Yamile Aldama we now have a genuine gold-medal contender," he said. She was not remotely on the radar a year ago, before the 39-year-old Cuban-born triple jumper finally switched allegiance to Britain last summer, after a decade as a London resident, and one failed previous bid to join the GB squad.

"It's a wonderful story, I think," Van Commenee said of the Wembley woman who won Britain's sole individual gold in Istanbul. "Winning a gold medal is one thing but overcoming the difficulties she has makes the medal shine even more. I have a lot of time and respect for her. She is a great example for other athletes."

Great enough for her to be made team captain at her adopted home Olympics? "She's certainly a candidate," Van Commenee said. "There are permanently a dozen of them."

The appointment of the US-born, US-raised and still predominantly US-resident Tiffany Porter to the team-leading role in Turkey did not, of course, go down well in some quarters. Asked what he thought of the re-stirring of the "Plastic Brit" debate, the coach replied: "I must say I'm very thankful for the Daily Mail because they created great team bonding.

"The team captain was attacked and she is very much respected within the team. So the team got together and fought like lions. They stood up for the team captain. So altogether it has had quite a positive effect on the team – and therefore the performance."

The performance of Mo Farah in Sunday's 3,000m final, though, did not hit the heights, the world outdoor 5,000m champion finishing out of the medals in fourth. Van Commenee, however, insisted: "I am very pleased with Mo because he has been running against the very best athletes in the world in the 3,000m. That's not his main distance. His main distances are 5,000m and 10,000m."

So, four and a half months out from the judgement days in London, how does it feel? "We got an unbelievable record medal haul here," he said. "We finished second to the US. So we have momentum in the right direction. I have no reason to be pessimistic."

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