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