Golden prospect: Van's the man to get Britain back on track

A Dutchman will take charge of Team GB for London 2012 – it will be hard work for all concerned. By Simon Turnbull

It was in August 1987 that Charles van Commenee got his first taste of athletics in Britain. "I came over for the European Junior Championships in Birmingham," he recalled. "I stayed in a tent on the grass next to the Alexander Stadium." Twenty-one years later, the Dutchman is about to pitch up on these shores again, this time as the would-be saviour of British athletics.

Judging by the nimble manner in which Niels de Vos, the chief executive of UK Athletics, danced around the subject of Dave Collins' successor in midweek, it would seem it is not so much a question of dotting the i's and crossing the t's as simply waiting for Van Commence to complete his duties as technical director of the Dutch Olympic Committee before the Amsterdammer is confirmed in a new role as head coach of the domestic governing body of track and field. "I'll be telling you who we're going with in a few weeks' time," De Vos said. Van Commence is due to return from the Paralympics on 18 September.

In formally announcing the departure of Collins from the now-defunct post of performance director, De Vos remarked: "Dave did a very good job of putting systems in place but at the end of the day systems don't win you medals. I felt we needed a higher level of coaching input across the board and Dave wasn't able to give that."

Indeed not. Collins was never an athletics coach or even a competitive athlete. His lack of background knowledge of the sport ran like a fault line through his four years in the post: from the crass introduction of marks out of 10 for athletes to the unfathomable order for Kate Reed to run a 2,000m time trial the night before the women's Olympic 10,000m final in Beijing.

It is not a failing that Van Commence will bring to the pivotal job in British athletics as he strives to haul the nation from joint eighth place in the track- and-field medal table in Beijing (one gold, two silvers, one bronze) somewhere up towards the established global superpowers of the sport, the United States and Russia.

Astute, pragmatic and highly affable too, the 50-year-old Ajax fanatic has a proven track record as a coach of the highest order. He was a club-standard 200m sprinter before injury forced him to hang up his spikes at the age of 22. He turned to coaching and within seven years, by the time he came to Birmingham in 1987, he was the Dutch javelin coach. In 1992 he was appointed coach for all throwing disciplines and combined events, and a year after that his role was expanded further, to include the novel experience of taking a Chinese world-beater under his wing.

After winning the women's shot put title at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Huang Zhihong wanted to spend time competing and training in Europe. It was Van Commenee's job to act as her coach and mentor. "You have to understand that this girl was taken up in an institute of sport when she was 12 years old, 2,000 miles from her parents, and she stayed there until she was 27," he said. "In the meantime she only slept, ate and threw the shot. That's it.

"She didn't know how to buy bread, cook a meal or buy shoes. I even had to teach her how to cook rice. The girl was on a sort of discovery journey. She'd never fallen in love before, never been lonely before, never got stuck anywhere on her own. She stayed for three years, from the age of 27 to 30, but she went through a lot of things other people would go through when they're 13 years old."

It said much for his coaching nous, not to mention his quasi-paternalism, that he steered Huang through her journey of self-discovery to a silver medal at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. It also said much for Van Commenee's coaching powers that he then turned Britain's Denise Lewis from a top-three heptathlete in 1997 into an Olympic champion in Sydney in 2000.

Perhaps the best illustration of his skill as a nurturer of athletics talent, however, is the transformation he effected in Kelly Sotherton. In 2001 he moved to Britain as the technical director of jumps and combined events for UK Athletics, and in 2003 he asked Sotherton to join Lewis in his training group. She was ranked 57th in the world. In August 2004 she won bronze in the Olympic heptathlon. Not that Van Commence was satisfied, accusing his charge of running "like a wimp" in the final event, 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," said Sotherton. "He's always going to be remembered for being the hard-faced coach, but I don't think any other coach could have got me to where he did. He made the difference between me being 57th in the world and being number three in the Olympics.

"He's very tough. He doesn't mince his words. I think a lot of people will have a rude awakening if he comes back here – the young athletes who don't know him from when he was here four years ago. It's a shame he wasn't in the job in the first place, because we lost him, didn't we?"

Indeed "we" did. When he was overlooked for the UK Athletics' performance director's role four years ago he returned to Holland and transformed his homeland's Olympic fortunes. They won seven gold medals in Beijing, their second-highest tally. Not that Van Commence was satisfied with it. "Our target was 10th in the medal table," he reflected. "We finished 12th." Come 2012, if Britain's runners, jumpers and throwers fail to deliver on home ground, don't hold your breath waiting for excuses.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz