London 2012 Olympics: Why Van Commenee must stay

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

Charles van Commenee (Getty Images)

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

7 Responses to “London 2012 Olympics: Why Van Commenee must stay”

  1. Ray Eaton says:

    I think those of us who follow the sport most keenly, would like to see Charles van Commonee, stay in his position, as UK Athletics head coach. Since he took charge of the sport in this country, results at all the Major competitions, has been very respectable.
    A lot has been made of the fact that he said he would "walk" if he failed to reach the target of eight medals. But in that total, he also mentioned one gold medal, and Great Britain went three better than that. Our best tally for 32 years, on the global stage. There is now a very fine pool of young British talent, coming through. Some of whom performed brilliantly at the Olympics, others were a bit disappointing, and a few had the misfortune to miss out, through injury. I'm sure some of them will challenge for major medals, in the years to come.
    Van Commonee has a tricky build-up to the Olympics. The Philips Idowu affair, was an unnecessary distraction for the sport, and the Dutchman was the target for much of the criticism, dished out by the Daily Mail, in their long-running "Plastic Brits" campaign. One target wasn't met, but London 2012, provided some of the most memorable moments in the history of British Athletics. Let's stick with Charles van Commonee's vision.

  2. Martin Hawkins says:

    Glorious? The end of elite Middle and Long distance running in the UK.

    If you take away the well deserved gold medals of one exceptional athlete then 'Team GB's' return was an utter failure. The fact that this was completely predictable has been ignored by the hysterical media who frenzy feed from the tit bits of Seb Coe and his establishment coterie.

    Just ask yourself where were the team competitors in the 800m, 1500m, 3000mSC, 5000m, 10000m and Marathon? Of course they tried, but they weren't ever the athlete that Mo is. So rather than developing a squad of elite juniors, perhaps half a dozen per year over the last 10 years, to really give us a great varied squad in these HOME Olympics, they put all their efforts into a handful of runners – most of whom didn't perform.
    Just ponder on that, even for our own Olympics they would not invest in runners. Steve Cram said in his Olympic Marathon commentary 'It's not about giving athletes money' – of course it is Steve! How can our elites work, train, get physio and compete at world level without significant funding? Any of them running over 5k needs altitude training at least once a year, try telling their employers that and see how they react.

    Or is it as has been pointed out that the private school Tory few will continue to be our exemplars, like Coe himself? Brendan Foster said that 'Seb Coe and his team have been wonderful and the sporting prowess and performance that we've been able to demonstrate means we've got the happiest of all coincidences and as a result sport is changing the nation'. Well it may be changing the nation but it's killed the future of elite running.

    Goodbye Charles and take Seb with you.

    • Steve JH says:

      Where were they? I think our 800m man, Mr Osagie might have something to say about this…

    • Chris says:

      Not sure you were watching the same games as me!

      800m – Osagie Final
      1500m – Weightman and Dobriskey final and whilst both struggled in the final they were both there
      5000m and 10000m – Pavey and Bleasdale. In many ways these athletes both produced two of the most unheralded performances of the games as the best non East African athletes finishing in 7th and 8th in both

      Yes, it would have been great to have had more British finalists and people at the front and injuries/lack of form scuppered that in some places (women's 800m, England, women's marathon) but 9 British performances making finals or finishing in the top 8 of the middle/long distance races works out as roughly 8% of people in these positions. Not a bad return for a nation of our size.

      Also, to clarify, Seb Coe might have served as a Tory politician but was educated at his local state comprehensive schools.

  3. frank vonken says:

    Former triple jumper Charles van Commenée did a great job for GB. But he could be the right person to 'lift' Brazilian athletes to a higher level. Congratulations to GB. To all the people who made the London Olympics 2012 the best ever.

  4. Charlie Comedy says:

    CVC has failed miserably and must go. Don't be deceived by the great achievements of Farah and Ennis, whom he has had very little to do with. The wider picture shows only one more top eight finish compared with Beijing (19 to 18). Barely any improvement despite the £25m lavished on UK athletics since then. Sprints, middle distances and throws are a wasteland. He failed to hit the medal target and should keep his promise to resign.

  5. Phil Sutcliffe says:

    Dear Athletics Weekly

    Just catching up with this topic. No strong feelings either way re CVC staying – you know, done a decent job, might have done better sort of thing. But the important thing is to move the athletics team forward across the board. That might mean applying the Brailsford/cycling approach to detail in every little corner – whether that process is led by CVC or AN Brilliant Other. I realise it's a more difficult job because you're dealing with far more individual sportsmen and far more coaches and the skills applied to, say, shot putt and marathon are a lot more diverse than, say, road race and 4000m pursuit (only track sprinters in cycling don't seem to have very transferable skills if you take sprint, keirin and team sprint to be equivalent to, say, 100m, 400m and 4 by 100m relay on the athletics track). But an ace management set-up would head in that direction for Rio I think to sort out the problems/maximise the potential of near-missers (S Lewis, both unrelated Bleasdales, Osagie etc), promising newcomers (Gemilli, Murray, Sharp, Weightman, Jack Green, Johnson-Thompson, Clarke, Pozzi, Okoye, even Grabarz still), the disappointers-on-the-day (Shakes-Drayton, Proctor, Porter, Dobriskey, Rooney) and even the so-far serial waste-of-spacers (Baddeley, Myerscough). Yours quite optimistically, Phil Sutcliffe

Leave a Reply