Charles van Commenee: Taking the hurdles in his stride

The straight-talking Team GB athletics supremo is totally at ease as he discusses Ennis's weight, the Idowu row and Plastic Brits with Simon Turnbull

Charles van Commenee is sitting in the patio of a Roman hotel fielding questions about Fatgate, National Anthemgate, Plastic Britgate, Twittergate, Opening Ceremonygate – basically, all of the gates-cum-hurdles that have sprung up on his horizon on the road to London 2012. He gives the occasional wince, but not because the subject matter is uncomfortable to him – rather because the odd question or observation makes him laugh.

"I was in Amsterdam the other day and fell off my bicycle," the Dutchman in charge of the British track-and-field team explains. "My ribs are broken."

Van Commenee is fond of the occasional laugh but he is not big on trivia that he deems to be irrelevant. He is happy to spend much of the hour answering queries relating to the alleged fatness of Jessica Ennis, the need to learn the National Anthem, his relationship with Phillips Idowu after their spat over Twitter, and various other media controversies that have arisen. He knows it is part of his job as the public face of British athletics.

The 53-year-old Amsterdammer finds it all rather amusing, which is why his ribs are giving him the occasional gyp. He certainly doesn't take it all too seriously.

Asked about his future beyond the 2012 Olympics (after which he has said that he will walk away from his job as head coach of UK Athletics if he fails to achieve his long-declared target of eight medals, including one gold), Van Commenee replies: "I'm very focused at the moment and will look at that after the Games. I have all sorts of issues to deal with – whether it's fatty athletes, CAS verdicts, Twitter, opening ceremonies... so my own future is quite irrelevant."

Van Commenee has dealt with some of the issues already: the question of Ennis being allegedly called "fat" by a "high-ranking person in UK Athletics," which he denies was himself; the question of him banning athletes from taking part in the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games on 27 July (the fact is the bulk of the British athletics team will be at holding camps in France and Portugal still training for their events, which don't start until a week later); and his relationship with Idowu since the pair fell out over the disputed terms of the triple jumper's withdrawal from the British team for last summer's European Team Championships, when he described Twitter as being a medium "for clowns and attentions seekers".

Then the question of the National Anthem is raised. The Daily Mail has been banned by UK Athletics since one of its reporters asked the US-born, US-raised but British-qualified Tiffany Porter to sing the words to "God Save the Queen" when she was appointed team captain on the eve of the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March.

"I forgot the 'Plastic Brits'," Van Commenee says, using the label manufactured by the newspaper that brought us Zola Budd in a British Olympic vest. "I know in Olympic year all sorts of rubbish comes up... This is nothing compared to what I had to go through in preparation for Beijing."

At the 2008 Olympics, Van Commenee was chef de mission of the entire Dutch team, in charge of all sports. "It was international then," he continues. "May I remind you in the lead-up to Beijing there were lots of issues around Taiwan, Tibet, smog, human rights, not having the ability to express yourself in public, child labour. And all of these things had to be addressed by me.

"This [Fatgate etc] is nothing compared to these major political issues. Now I represent a sport. At that time I represented a nation. And those were, in my mind, serious issues. The issues I deal with now are partly not serious.

"But it comes with the job, when you have a leading position in sport. And this is nothing compared to what football managers have to go through. But at least it tells me that athletics is worth talking about these days. When you are in the spotlight, then yes, you get issues to talk about."

So was there pressure in the Netherlands for Van Commenee to withdraw the national squad from the Beijing Olympics because of political issues? "Yes, absolutely," he says. "Much more than there was in Britain. I had a dozen public relations people around me saying, 'Don't say this', 'Don't say that'.

"When it comes to global politics and how to present your nation in that landscape, it's a very different matter to things that are very sport-related. That is not a territory I am familiar with."

So, back to serious matters: in light of the furore of Porter being asked to sing the National Anthem, (she told the man from the Mail that she knew the lines but did not feel it necessary to recite them at a press conference), will Van Commenee be issuing the words to everyone to pre-empt any future media ambush? "They know the words," he replies. "They will."

Why is he so sure? "Because I will ask the question," he says. "I'm not going to rehearse everybody, because we will have 90 athletes, but the people that matter – let's say the relevant ones. The ones on your radar."

Does it really matter whether anybody knows the words to the National Anthem? "It matters because you'll ask the question," Van Commenee replies. "It matters because if they don't somebody will make an issue of it."

Was it an issue in the Netherlands? "No," he says. "I would not know the words of the Dutch national anthem... the first two lines, yes, but there are like 14 lines."

But what about the lines of communication between Van Commenee and Idowu? Have they opened up since last summer's verbal stand-off between the head coach and the European champion triple jumper?

"He jumped very well in Daegu [at the 2011 World Championships] and the situation then is no different to now," Van Commenee says. "I stay in close contact with the people around him."

Last week Van Commenee was in touch with Ennis "just to check if she was OK or if she had any issues" following claims made by her coach Toni Minichiello that a "high-ranking person" in UK Athletics had called her "fat". On Thursday the Dutchman denied that he was the culprit. He said he knew that people would presume it was him. But why? "First of all because I'm leading the programme and I am the public face of athletics," he says. "I don't think people are reading the newspaper and thinking my second assistant may ask these sort of questions. Possibly because of my style...I'm guessing here now."

It was in keeping with Van Commenee's straight-talking, pragmatic style that he told the potential Olympians in his charge last year that they would not be taking part in the London 2012 opening ceremony, saying "it doesn't fit in with their professional preparations for the Games".

Now he says: "It's their decision. They are professional athletes. About seven athletes will be in Loughborough at that time but 90 per cent of the team will be abroad. The majority will be in Monte Gordo or Font Romeu and it won't be an issue.

"When I first made the statement there were a few athletes who made some noise but they didn't know the full score – about where they would be and the timetable, etc. Now everyone is focused on their performance."

Van Commenee has been focused on his job all along, ever since his appointment in the wake of the Beijing Olympics. Nothing, he says, ever keeps him awake worrying at night – not even the latest tweets of the parodying "Charles van Comedy". "It makes me laugh," he says. "I don't know who it is. It's the best-kept secret in British athletics. I wouldn't know how to open Twitter but people send me emails with bits in."

Less than two months before the moments of reckoning, before the Olympic Games begin, despite all of the "issues", Van Commenee appears to be at ease and his enjoying his profession. "Yes, I am enjoying it," he says. "I chose to do this job because of the home Olympics. I could have easily stayed in Holland in a nice job but I preferred this because it is such a special thing to go through, to experience and be part of. The three years leading up to this have been preparation. Now it's business time."

Dutch daring

Athletics career Competed at club level in the Decathlon and 200m but a hamstring injury ended his career.

Coaching history

1987 Becomes Dutch javelin coach

1992 Appointed as Technical Director of Combined Events and Throws for Dutch team.

1993 Begins coaching Chinese shot-putter Huang Zhihong.

1994 Starts coaching British athletes, including Denise Lewis.

2001 Technical Director for Jumps and Combined Events.

2009 Becomes the man in charge of performance for the entire UK athletics team.

Back the team and watch Britain's best athletes in action at the Aviva 2012 Trials in Birmingham from 22 to 24 June. For tickets visit www.uka.org.uk/aviva-series or call 08000 55 60 56

Olympic news you may have missed...

Aaron Cook is likely to discover today whether he will take part in London 2012. The five-strong British Taekwondo selection panel meets for the third time today after being asked by the British Olympic Association to reconsider its selection of Lutalo Muhammad ahead of Cook – the world no 1 – in the under-80kg category. A BOA observer will be at the meeting after the body that oversees Team GB rejected Muhammad's original selection. If the panel again ignores Cook the 21 year old may consider legal action. Cook, the European champion, finished fourth in Beijing aged 17. Last year he left BT's elite training programme and employed his own coaching team.

What's coming up...

Tyson Gay is set to run at the New York Adidas Grand Prix on Saturday. It will be the American sprinter's first competitive race since hip surgery last July, as he begins his attempt to be ready for the US Olympic trials in three weeks' time. Gay will compete in a "B" grade heat and will not face the world champion, Yohan Blake, who runs in the featured 100m. "I've got to see where my body is," said Gay, who started sprinting again just three weeks ago.

Who's up?

Liu Xiang Reasserted his position as favourite for the 100m hurdles with a strong performance at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon. Xiang would have equalled the world record held by Cuba's Dayron Robles, had his time of 12.87 not been held to be wind-assisted, by a slight margin.

Who's down?

Kosuke Kitajima The Japanese Olympic Gold medallist in the 100m and 200m breaststroke appeared to be in pain and short of breath at the Japanese Olympic trials. Britain's Liam Tancock, who is in line to face Kitajima in London, will have taken note.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit