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
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The Independent Online

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.