Coach with 1,000 days to drive British athletes to London golds

With the Olympics fast approaching, the head of UK Athletics, Charles van Commenee, talks to Simon Turnbull about his demanding medal targets for 2012 and why he thinks the team may even exceed his lofty expectations
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The clock on the wall of the Lee Valley Athletics Centre is ticking towards 2.12pm. For Charles van Commenee, it is the countdown to 2012 that is on his mind. Pretty much 24/7. Precisely 1,000 days from today the Dutchman will be expected to deliver eight British track and field medal winners at the London Olympic arena in Stratford.

Nine months into his job as head coach of UK Athletics, the governing body of the principal Olympic sport in Britain, Van Commenee is making progress in his mission. Before his arrival, there were just the four British track and field medal winners at the Beijing Olympics last year. At the World Championships in Berlin in August, there were six – and from a squad significantly weakened by injury. The tally represented the biggest World Championship haul by a British team since 1999 – and this from a team shorn of such major contenders as the marathon duo Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi, plus Olympic medallists Germaine Mason in the high jump and 400m hurdler Tasha Danvers.

So, 1,000 days out, how happy is the 51-year-old Amsterdammer with where he has got to in his search for host-nation heroes for 2012?

"The word 'happy' is intriguing," Van Commenee ponders. "When I started here in February, a lot of my colleagues thought that [eight medals, last achieved in 1988] was too ambitious. The environment of athletics was of that opinion – 'Why the hell do you start with a sort of a guarantee of failure?'

"Since Berlin, things have changed. But I'm aware that if you want some sort of security on winning eight medals, you must have 15 real true medal shots. There's some work to be done in those 1,000 days, for sure. There's also a big difference between winning six medals and eight.

"So am I happy?... I'm happy that the Games are not tomorrow. We need those 1,000 days."

And British athletics, it is fair to say, needs its Van the Man.

Van Commenee's coaching acumen has already been responsible for putting two British athletes on the Olympic podium, both of them against the odds. In the Sydney Games in 2000 he guided Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold, even though she was stricken by injury. His feat in helping Kelly Sotherton win the heptathlon bronze medal in Athens four years later was even more remarkable. She had been ranked 57th in the world when he started coaching her – a statistic recalled less than his public appraisal that his charge had "run like a wimp" in the 800m. The point was, for all of the great strides Sotherton had taken, she ought to have pushed herself all the way and won the silver.

The last time London welcomed the world to an Olympic Games, back in 1948, there was a significant Dutch influence. In fact, Fanny Blankers-Koen stole the show. The 30-year-old mother of two won four gold medals under the old twin towers of Wembley: in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. Van Commenee's eyes light up at the mention of "the Flying Dutch Housewife," a fellow Amsterdammer.

"I coached for nine years at the 1928 Olympic Stadium warm-up track in the middle of Amsterdam – the same place where Fanny Blankers-Koen trained," he says. "She was a member of the same club, Sagitta. It's Latin for arrow. Actually, her husband and coach, Jan Blankers, was the founder of the club.

"That track has been removed now but it still says: 'Here used to train Fanny Blankers-Koen.' So there is something with me and the London Games. I first went to that track when I was nine-years-old. And 'Fanny Blankers-Koen, London,' that goes in one breath. It's quite, quite special."

So what might the chances be of Van Commenee getting as many gold medals at a London Olympics as his celebrated compatriot? "Wouldn't that be special? With four gold medals, I will definitely party."

In Beijing last year only one British athlete struck gold: Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m. At the World Championships in Berlin the British gold standard rose to two, courtesy of Phillips Idowu in the triple jump and Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon. Of equal promise on the 2012 front, there were 20 top-eight placings.

There was also evidence of a sea change in attitude among the British squad in Berlin, a sharpening of focus. Lisa Dobriskey spoke of it after picking up a silver medal in the 1500m from the pieces of a season that in her case threatened to be shattered by injury. "In the team meeting before the championships Charles gave us a good talking to," she said. "He told us: 'Athletics has been a yesterday sport after the Olympics, with everyone talking about swimming, cycling and rowing. People aren't interested in hearing that someone's got a virus.' It really hit home."

Earlier in the season, Van Commenee had suggested that the public perception of Britain's leading athletes was that they were fragile and injury-prone. In his eve of the championships speech in Berlin, he told his team to "go into the arena with an invincible attitude" and said he didn't want to hear the words "injury, pain, or niggle."

Three months on, he reflects: "The athletes stood up and took responsibility for success, and also failure. They didn't look for external circumstances. And that's what I would like to see from everybody involved. That applies to the athletes in the arena and also to Julie Hollman, who is running this centre, and also to myself, and to the other coaches, and to the people in the office."

Hollman has been accountable for the mugs of tea we are sipping in the foyer. Now an athletics coach, she competed in the heptathlon in the Beijing Olympics and is the only British heptathlete to have beaten Carolina Kluft, the great Swede. Her presence, as administrator of the Lee Valley centre, is a reflection of the expertise that Van Commenee and Niels de Vos, the chief executive of UK Athletics, are putting in the foundations of the Great British Olympic medal push.

"It takes experience," Van Commenee says. "If you look at the most recent appointments we have made, George Gandy [national event coach for endurance] is 70-years-old. Malcolm Arnold [national event coach for the hurdles] is about the same age. Experience is a big thing. That's the first thing you look at in the phase before an Olympic Games. There's no room to find out, for trial and error."

Van Commenee's own coaching experience stretches back 32 years. He was 19 when his competitive career as a sprinter was curtailed by injury and he turned to coaching. Now, Britain is the Dutchman's home from home, and eight medals from a single sport is his target. Just 1,000 days now and it will be bullseye time.

Good as gold? Britain's eight likeliest track and field medallists

JESSICA ENNIS: Denied a shot at gold in Beijing because of injury, the Sheffield athlete was a class apart in winning the world heptathlon title in August.

PHILLIPS IDOWU: Beaten to Olympic gold by 5cm in Beijing, the triple jumper from Hackney took the world title in Berlin in convincing style.

CHRISTINE OHURUOGU: Will be the only defending British champion in 2012. Lost her world title in Berlin after a season of hamstring problems.

PAULA RADCLIFFE: The world's fastest ever female marathon runner by a distance. Beaten in two of her eight marathons, when illness or injury struck at the Olympics.

LISA DOBRISKEY: Fourth in the Olympic 1500m final and second at the World Championships, the Ashford athlete is forging a fine reputation at global level.

GREG RUTHERFORD: Set a British long-jump record of 8.30m in the qualifying round at the World Championships. A disappointing fifth in the final but has big potential.

WILLIAM SHARMAN: The British find of the World Championships. Finished fourth in the 110m hurdles after being ranked 31st. Former timekeeper on the Gladiators TV show.

MARA YAMAUCHI: Sixth in the Olympic marathon and runner-up in the London Marathon this year. At 36, the Oxford woman is getting ever closer to the top.