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?
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
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

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us