Simon Turnbull: 'Flying Dutch housewife' once blazed London trail now taken by Radcliffe
Friday 27 May 2011
Charles van Commenee will be back on home ground on Sunday. The head coach of UK Athletics is travelling to Hengelo, a tranquil little town in the north-east of the Netherlands, to assess the form of the sizeable group of British athletes competing in the annual FBK Games there – Jenny Meadows, Michael Rimmer and Andy Turner among them.
For Van Commenee, the Dutchman entrusted with the task of putting home athletes on the medal podium at the 2012 Olympics, the trip will have a special resonance. The Hengelo meeting, celebrated for the world record-breaking feats of Haile Gebrselassie, is held in honour of Fanny Blankers-Koen, the star of the last Olympic Games in London, in 1948. "The Flying Dutch Housewife" the British press called the woman who plundered four gold medals – in the 100 metres, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay – under the shadow of the old twin towers at Wembley Stadium.
Blankers-Koen died in 2004, aged 85, five years after being honoured by the International Association of Athletics Federations as the Female Athlete of the 20th century. She honed her world-beating talent at the Amsterdam track that was built as the warm-up arena for the 1928 Olympic Games.
Van Commenee, a native Amsterdammer, knows the place well. "I first went there when I was nine-years-old," he said. "I coached there for nine years. Fanny Blankers-Koen was a member of the same club, Sagitta, which is the Latin word for 'arrow'.
"Fanny Blankers-Koen and the words 'London' and 'Olympics' will always be together. For me, as someone from the same country as Fanny Blankers-Koen, to be head coach of the home athletics team at another Olympic Games in London, it feels like a circle is being completed."
Back in 1948, there were those who felt that Blankers-Koen and the London Olympic Games were a far from natural fit. As she once recalled: "I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my two children." Jack Crump, head of the British athletics team at those Games, said that the 30-year-old mother of two was "too old to make the grade".
"That's interesting," Van Commenee said, chuckling at the words of his distant predecessor.
As he guides the British squad towards the 2012 Games, overseeing the deeds of many of them in the compact, atmospheric Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadion on Sunday, Van Commenee just happens to be awaiting the return to competitive action of a 37-year-old mother-of two. The London 10,000 road race on Monday morning will be Paula Radcliffe's first race for 18 months, her first since giving birth to her second child, Raphael, in September last year.
For the Bedfordshire woman who holds the women's world marathon record at a jaw-dropping 2hr 15min 25sec, it will be the start of a fifth challenge for Olympic glory – a third at the unforgiving distance of the 26.2-mile marathon.
"I would not say that it's a bonus to have Paula back," Van Commenee said. "The word 'bonus' suggests that luck is involved. With an athlete of Paula's quality it would be a disappointment if she did not get a medal.
"Paula is a very important athlete for British athletics. She can be the star of the Games. She has had her problems with injuries, of course. She has had time out from the marathon, but that can work to her advantage. You can run too many marathons. Paula is coming back fresh."
Might the mother of two not be too old, though, at 37 –or 38, as she will be, come December – to make the medal grade in the London Olympic marathon? "With the women's marathon, age is not a problem," Van Commenee said. "It can be an advantage."
It was certainly no handicap to Constantina Dita in Beijing three years ago. The Romanian struck Olympic marathon gold as a 38-year-old mother of one.
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