UKA head coach Charles van Commenee may have ‘failed’ to reach his target of eight medals, but the GB team has rediscovered its mojo under his leadership and won the credibility contest in London 2012 with four golds
People wondering if Charles van Commenee will fall on his sword after the British athletics team fell short of its target at the London Olympics should remember that Britain failed to win a solitary gold at the 1996, 1988 and 1976 Games, not to mention the last time the Olympics was held in London in 1948.
Okay, the class of 2012 did not hit the target of eight medals. Personally, I was even predicting double figures for the Brits before the Games. Stan Greenberg, a statistician who witnessed his 273rd world record in London, was talking about as many as 16 medals.
But six medals and four victories to place fourth on the medals table is still a fine achievement. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis, long jumper Greg Rutherford and 5000m and 10,000m winner Mo Farah gave Britain some truly golden moments. At the Montreal Games, let’s not forget, Britain won just one track and field medal – a bronze – courtesy of Brendan Foster in the 10,000m.
Track and field athletics is the most competitive sport in the world by far. More than 200 nations send athletes to compete. I am a big fan of cycling and swimming, but those sports are nowhere near as ‘global’.
There are huge parts of the world, for example, that have no access to decent bicycles, or even roads to ride them on, plus swimming pools. In comparison, everyone runs at school. So when the 100m final or marathon take place, you know you’re watching the best of the best.
The real heats and rounds for popular events like these began, effectively, at a zillion school sports days in every corner of the planet a decade or so ago. Athletics draws from a mammoth talent pool and medals are therefore far harder to win.
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the sport was struggling. There were serious concerns that the host nation would perform disastrously in the No.1 Olympic sport – and the fears were justified.
At the IAAF World Championships, the GB team won two medals (one gold) in 2001, three medals (no gold) in 2003 and three medals (one gold) in 2005, before improving to five medals (one gold) in 2007, six medals (two golds) in 2009 and seven medals (two golds) in 2011.
This is more about mere medals, too. Athletics has won the credibility contest in the run-up to the London Games. In short, it has rediscovered its mojo.
The British athletics team in the past has often been peppered with championship passengers or journeymen. Yet the team who performed at London 2012 is one we can be truly proud of. They have given their all and left nothing on the track or training field.
Dave Collins, the former UKA performance director, was criticised for not having a background in athletics, but he probably did more good than people give him credit for. With his military background, he banged heads together and put in place systems to measure performance and improvement.
Then, when Collins’ work was done and structures in place, Van Commenee arrived as UKA head coach after the Beijing Games and has proved the perfect man for the job.
Unlike Collins, Van Commenee has a strong knowledge and feel for the sport, including an understanding of the intricacies of British athletics, together with useful wider experience gained from a stint as Dutch chef de mission at Beijing 2008. The only string he has not had to his bow, in fact, is the slice of luck that might have nudged some of the half-dozen British athletes who placed fourth or fifth on to the podium.
If he now resigns – as he always threatened to do if the GB team “failed” hit the eight medals target - it would be a travesty. Not to mention a major error for the sport as it heads towards Glasgow 2014, Rio 2016 and London 2017.
In fact, it is painful to even write the word “fail” in conjunction with the British team at these Games. Four gold medals has not been matched by a British athletics team at the Olympics since the boycotted Games of 1980, so to use the word ‘fail’ in the same sentence is an insult to the class of 2012.
Seb Coe has already given Van Commenee his support by saying the “team has done more than enough”. I would completely support that and British athletics will be far poorer if Van Commenee decides to walk.
» Jason Henderson is covering his fourth Olympics for AW and tweets at @Jason_AW