bbc.co.uk Navigation


An Olympiad too late for many observers, Charles van Commenee is finally going to get the chance to see what a Dutch double of tough talk and know-how can do for the entire British athletics team.

The man who coached Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold in Sydney - and perhaps even more notably made Kelly Sotherton cry after her bronze-medal display in Athens - Van Commenee will be named as head coach by UK Athletics (UKA) on Tuesday.

On the face of it, Van Commenee's return to Britain is the kind of story we will see at a dozen football clubs before the leaves start to fall from the trees.

The team fails to live up to expectations, the mob demands a sacrifice, the man in the dugout gets it in the neck. For UKA, those expectations were five medals in Beijing and the scapegoat was performance director Dave Collins.

But this story (and British athletics in general) is more complicated than that.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

First, Beijing was not the disaster some have portrayed, and it certainly wasn't enough on its own to bring down the curtain on Collins. No, the seeds of his demise were sown long ago, perhaps before he even started the job in 2005.

The Royal Marine turned PE teacher turned sports psychologist got the nod after a lengthy interview process to find a successor to Max Jones. But it was an interview process that proved too lengthy for most people's favourite for the role, Van Commenee.

He got tired of having to jump through hoops to get a job he thought should have been handed to him, and when a offer to work across all the Olympic sports came from the Dutch he took the patriotic option.

But Collins wasn't just a second choice; he was a controversial choice.

Unlike Van Commenee and other names on the shortlist, Collins was an outsider. At the time of his appointment, he was a professor of physical education at Edinburgh University.

His speciality was the dark art of making sportsmen and women feel like superstars, and his athletics pedigree was based solely on mental pep rally work with javelin thrower Steve Backley, sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis and long jumper Chris Tomlinson.

But his lack of practical experience was not a problem for UKA chief executive Dave Moorcroft, it was almost a virtue.

A government-funded review of the sport had just called for the appointment of an all-powerful performance director, and with results drying up it seemed like the perfect time to try something else.

Collins, with his eclectic background (he competed at national level in judo and karate and captained the British gridiron team), fitted the bill.

Unfortunately, one man's guru is another man's David Brent, and what worked for Backley backfired when applied to everybody else. His plan to publicly rate performances out of 10 was an embarrassing failure that upset athletes and coaches: what was wrong with distances, heights and times, they wondered.

He then appointed Linford Christie as a mentor to the team only to change his mind when many protested about the former sprinter's doping issues. The ensuing fudge pleased nobody and Collins' judgement was made to look suspect.

Results didn't help either. The 2005 Worlds were dismal and the 2006 Europeans weren't much better.

Former UKA performance director Dave Collins

This wasn't entirely the new man's fault - a decade of declining performances in the junior ranks was now being reflected in the senior team - but the expenditure of so much lottery money on so few medals meant his excuses sounded flimsy.

Collins deserves praise for a few of his initiatives. For example, he cut the number of athletes being funded. This necessary step was never going to win him many friends.

He also backed the policy of persuading people to work in one of four high-performance centres dotted around the country, and there are signs his stats-based "Power of 10" ranking system is starting to bear fruit at the junior level.

But Collins' successes have been outnumbered by mistakes. Losing his job for only just missing a target might seem harsh but when you consider what went before - and throw in a public squabble over team selection and his shoddy treatment of distance runner Kate Reed - Collins was doomed.

With him goes the non-specialist performance director experiment. The men in tracksuits, with stopwatches around their necks, are back in favour at UKA's sharp end. And if you're going to go down that route, Van Commenee's second coming was almost inevitable.

A decent athlete until injuries forced him to quit at 22, the Amsterdamer rose quickly through the Dutch coaching ranks.

His big break came when he met Lewis at an event in Spain in 1994. Her coach couldn't make the trip and she was having problems with her long jump. Van Commenee helped her out and three years later she moved to Holland to train with him. Three more years later and she was on top of the podium in Sydney.

That earned him a job as UKA's technical director of jumps and multi-events, a role that would see him continue to work with Lewis but also bring him into contact with the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Dean Macey and Sotherton.

Although he had given a hint of his boot camp credentials when he stopped working with Lewis because he felt she would never reach the heights again after motherhood, it was his comment about Sotherton - calling her "a wimp" for not running hard enough in 2004 - that cemented his reputation.

But what is more interesting about the Sotherton episode is her reaction to his appointment. She said some of her team-mates were in for "a rude awakening", but made it clear this was a good thing.

Kelly Sotherton after her 800m at the Beijing Olympics

Her support for Van Commenee, whose Dutch team finished a creditable 12th in the Beijing medal table, has been echoed by everybody I have to spoken to in British athletics over the last few weeks.

Collins' predecessor Jones was unequivocal: Van Commenee, a hard but fair coach of the highest calibre, should have been given the job four years ago. Frank Dick, British athletics' head coach during its 1980s pomp, was in total agreement.

But it will not be easy for CVC. Four years is no time at all in Olympic terms and there are no quick fixes in a sport this competitive. Unlike some of our more successful sports, there are 200 nations looking for athletics medals and in Beijing 42 of them managed it.

The good news, however, is our Chinese haul could and should have been much better. Injuries and illnesses deprived us of medal chances, and other potential prizes were squandered by bad luck, basics or tactics.

I know almost every country can say something similar but that is where Van Commenee's character, expertise and the extra resources available in the run-up to 2012 can be brought to bear.

A little less psycho-babble and a little more straight-talking (with added technical input) should go a long way to turning a few of those 17 top-eight performances in China into London medals.

It's a big job but we've finally got our man.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


Error: Too many requests have been made during a short time period so you have been blocked.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites