After a marathon stint speaking to the ladies and gentlemen of the Sports Journalists' Association in the function room of a Fleet Street pub yesterday, Charles Van Commenee was presented with a cartoon depicting a bunch of athletes departing from his office. "So it's true – he does have a softer side... it's terrifying," the caption read.
Van Commenee laughed heartily. The Dutchman entrusted with the job of getting British track and field athletes on to the medal podium at the home Olympics in a year and two weeks is far from the ruthless cardboard cut-out image sometimes portrayed.
The Amsterdammer, the head coach of UK Athletics since February 2009, is more of a straight-talking ultra-professional who leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of his goals, which is why there will be no British runners, jumpers or throwers wasting vital energy marching around the track in the opening ceremony on 27 July next year – and why those athletes will get the chance to compete in the Olympic Stadium, even though the official test event happens to be the British Universities' Championships meeting in May.
"I have told the athletes they will not be taking part in the Opening Ceremony," Van Commenee said. "There has been a little bit of noise from them, but they know it is not feasible. I think, and they agree in the end, that it does not fit in with their professional preparation for the Games.
"They would not go shopping for eight hours a few days before they compete, so why would you be on your feet for that length of time? Some are tempted because [it is a] once in a lifetime experience, but in the end we are aware that performance is number one.
"They can do the closing ceremony and the bus ride out. I am sure we will do something for them at our holding camps at Monte Gordo, Font Romeu and Loughborough but you will not see track and field athletes on 27 July in London."
Far from being the diktat of a tyrant, it is a sensible move with the athletes' best interests in mind. At the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last autumn, the Australian chef de mission Steve Moneghetti complained that his athletes were "treated like cattle" after being penned into a stifling tunnel for an hour before marching into the stadium.
Similarly, prising a window of opportunity for the British team to get their feet under the table on their home Olympic track can only help to maximise the GB medal potential for 2012. "We would like the trials to be there but it's not feasible for security reasons," van Commenee said. "The Olympic Stadium will be closed for every activity from around the middle of May.
"There will be one test event, the university championships in May. The university world is a very traditional world and it's not easy to get a few places in their field for Olympic athletes. At the moment we are having conversations. Whether we have two lanes per event or three, we cannot break tradition that has been there for 300 years or so."
In the meantime, before they face their university challenge, and indeed their big Olympic examination, Britain's athletes are making promising progress towards Van Commenee's target of eight medals in 2012, at least one of them of a golden hue.
At the end of last year there were four Britons occupying top-six placings in the world rankings. Midway through the 2011 summer season, there are eight: two of them 19-year-olds who have broken British records in the past fortnight, pole vaulter Holly Bleasdale and discus thrower Lawrence Okoye, who are among a crop of rapidly emerging young Brits who are expected to reap a golden harvest at the European Under-23 Championships at Ostrava in the Czech Republic this weekend.
"I think we're definitely heading in the right direction," Van Commenee reflected. "We've made improvements in many areas but I still think there's room for improvement in the next 13 months. A good example is injury rate. Athletics is a sport where injuries are a fact of life but it is our aim to bring that number down. If we have fit athletes on the track in 2012 I'm confident that we'll make the target. Injuries are the biggest threat to that."
On the subject of repairs, Van Commenee intends to build a working relationship with Phillips Idowu following the public spat between the pair about the disputed question of whether the world triple jump champion announced his withdrawal from the squad for the European Team Championships in Stockholm last month on Twitter. "We have both decided to leave the incident behind us," Van Commenee said. "We have a common important event in Daegu [the World Championships in South Korea next month] and then London next year. That's what we are focusing on and we will leave the rest behind us."
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