Van Commenee to replace Collins in UK Athletics role

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There were 7,003 souls braving the rain in the stands at Gateshead International Stadium yesterday and 18 Olympic medallists competing on the track and in the field, four of them British. There was, however, one notable absentee from the British Grand Prix, the post-Olympic meeting billed as "the return of the heroes". Dave Collins, the performance director of UK Athletics, was nowhere to be seen.

As of today, he will formally disappear from the pivotal role in British athletics. A statement to that effect from the domestic governing body is expected this afternoon.

It will be not so much the end of an era as the end of an error. Charles van Commenee, the Dutchman who should have got the job four years ago, has been lined up to take over. Quite what the old regime (headed by the former chief executive, Dave Moorcroft) had in mind when it appointed Collins in December 2004 was difficult to fathom then. It is even more baffling now.

It is not so much that the British athletes fell one medal shy of their five-medal target at the Beijing Olympics, although that has to be considered a failure. It is more that Collins' lack of an athletics background – which one would have imagined to be the one essential requirement for his job – has run like a fault line throughout the tenure of the sports psychologist and former Royal Marine, judoka, rugby player and American footballer.

Collins' decision to issue marks out of 10 to Britons competing at the 2006 European Championships in Gothenburg defied belief. As Brendan Foster pointed out at the time, athletics has always had a marking system: it is called first, second, third and fourth.

Then there was Collins' inability to grasp why he was not sending out the right signals when he sanctioned a trip for Harry Aikines-Aryeetey to train with Trevor Graham, the drugs-tainted coach of the drugs-tainted Justin Gatlin. In Beijing there was also the mind-boggling order for Kate Reed to run a 2,000-metre time trial the night before the 10,000m final.

It is difficult to imagine Van Commenee making such crass judgements. He will be engaged as technical director of the Dutch Olympic Committee until the Paralympics close in Beijing on 17 September, but he is expected to be named as Collins' successor soon afterwards. In contrast to Collins, who has never competed or coached in athletics, Van Commenee has a first-class pedigree in track and field.

A club athlete in his youth, he turned to coaching after being forced to retire from competition at the age of 22 and guided the Chinese shot-putter Huang Zhihong to the silver medal at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. Five years later he coached Britain's Denise Lewis to the Olympic heptathlon title in Sydney. That was proof enough of his coaching and motivational powers but more was to come.

He took Kelly Sotherton from 57th in the heptathlon world rankings in 2003 to third on the Olympic podium in 2004. Not that he was satisfied with Sotherton's 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.

"People always go on about that quote, but they have to remember that Charles was the one who got me in the position to be an Olympic medallist," Sotherton said. "I don't think any other coach could have got me to where he did. If he did get this job I think he would bring a different dimension to it. A lot of people who didn't know him when he was here before [as UK Athletics' technical director of jumps and combined events from 2001 to 2004] would be in for a rude awakening.

"He's very tough. He doesn't mince his words. But he knows how to make things happen. He knows how to get results."

With the countdown to 2012 now under way, Britain's runners, jumpers and throwers need better results than they achieved in the Beijing "Bird's Nest" Stadium.