Charles van Commenee was appointed as the head coach of UK Athletics in February 2009 on the strength of his reputation as a pragmatic, tough-talking coach with a proven track record of getting results in the Olympic arena. In Sydney in 2000 he guided an injured Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold. In Athens in 2004 he got Kelly Sotherton on to the rostrum as a bronze medal winner in the heptathlon, 12 months after she had been ranked 57th in the world.
That Van Commenee proceeded to publicly berate Sotherton for running "like a wimp" in the 800m, when she might have improved from the bronze medal position to silver, hallmarked the Dutchman's image as some kind of ruthless Rutger Hauer character. "In Holland you tend to name things as they are, call a spade a spade, and perhaps sometimes that's perceived here as harsh," he told The Independent in 2009, having confided that "in hindsight" he had been "unprofessional" in criticising Sotherton after the competition had finished, when his barb could not have provoked a positive reaction from her.
Whether Van Commenee comes to regret the verbal volley of disapproval he aimed at the absent Phillips Idowu on the eve of the European Team Championships remains to be seen. A festering public dispute between two such key figures can hardly help the British athletics team in the build-up to the World Championships at Daegu in South Korea in August – and in the countdown to those home Olympics.
It is easy to empathise with Van Commenee's unease about the influence of tweeting. Its capacity for causing disruption among athletes at the London Olympics was further underlined over the weekend when Usain Bolt posted a link to an interview with Tyson Gay in Sports Illustrated, adding the message: "I think some athlete need to get them self a girl so they can get there mind off me still cause my mind is on track, life and of course girls."
No matter how Idowu's withdrawal might have been communicated, he is not the first leading British athlete to treat the European Team Championships as an unwanted distraction. When Britain won its predecessor, the European Cup, at Gateshead in 2000, Jonathan Edwards, Colin Jackson and Steve Backley were all notable withdrawals.
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