[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.] Van Commenee's departure leaves a large and Special gapBy Mike Rowbottom
Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Speaking personally, I have always thought there was a hint of the Special One about Charles van Commenee, who has insisted on falling on his sword as UK Athletics performance director following the British team's failure to reach his pre-Games target of eight medals including one gold – even though four of the six won were gold, and no one on the senior management wanted him to go.
The Dutchman's reasoning over the issue is unimpeachable. "If I hold athletes and coaches accountable every day, how could I work over the next four years if I am not held accountable myself?" Van Commenee had asked – rhetorically – when he spoke to the media at the end of the London 2012 Olympics.
Niels de Vos, chief executive of UK Athletics, was ready to offer the Dutchman a new contract, which would take him up to 2017, when Britain will host the IAAF World Championships. De Vos and Ed Warner, the UK Athletics chairman, insisted that Van Commenee had a think about his decision while he was on holiday. He did. And when he came back his decision was the same. The delay, however, has prevented any negativity leaking into the overwhelmingly positive national coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics.
Clearly, Van Commenee wanted to go, as he was not obliged to. He himself acknowledged in the immediate aftermath of the Olympics that the British team had provided "some iconic moments that will remain forever with the British nation"; a state of affairs which he said filled him with pride.
By dint of the heavy-scoring golds, Britain also finished fourth in the athletics medals table behind the United States, China and Jamaica, four years after four medals, including one gold from 400 metres runner Christine Ohuruogu, had left them in joint eighth position.
Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah created British athletic history on the first Saturday of the programme by winning the heptathlon, long jump and 10,000m respectively in the space of a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming hour.
Farah's subsequent gold in the 5,000m a week later created another moment to treasure for all those who follow the sport. But a 400m silver from defending champion Ohuruogu and bronze in the high jump from Robbie Grabarz still left Britain two short of that relatively conservative estimate.
Whereas Van Commenee's predecessor Dave Collins, an ex-Marine who at times resembled Captain Hurricane being forced to reason with the enemy rather than doing the natural thing and hurling them to the four winds, never got much of a good press, the Dutchman has enjoyed a far higher and more successful profile.
And you sense he really has enjoyed it. Like that ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho – whatever happened to him, by the way? – Van Commenee relished the media game, and no briefing with him was ever dull.
At any point, he might take up barely disguised invitations to savage perceived weakness or lameness in an athlete. He was almost scornful of the efforts of some of those athletes under his charge after the European Championships in Helsinki earlier this summer, an attitude which was effectively given carte blanche by the UK Athletics Olympic selection policy: "The Panel will not nominate any athlete who it has good reason to think will be uncompetitive at the Games."
Van Commenee was happy to accept in Helsinki that he expected "a heap of appeals" from athletes objecting to their exclusion from the Olympic team. In the event, there were ten such appeals – and all but one were turned down.
The Dutchman was entirely pragmatic on the issue. His is not a shoulder any athlete would look to cry upon. He doesn't do sentimentality, as he had very publicly demonstrated at the Athens Games of 2004 when he pretty much ruined the medal ceremony for the athlete he had coached to the heptathlon bronze medal, Kelly Sotherton, by publically calling her "a wimp" for not pursuing the silver which he felt had been within her grasp with sufficient vigour. Sotherton was reduced to tears.
He showed the same obduracy on the issue of including recently cleared athletes who had previously represented other nations in the team, always assuming they could perform to the requisite level. Some called them "Plastic Brits"; he just viewed them as Brits.
The selection of naturalised United States athletes such as Shana Cox and Tiffany Porter, and Yamilé Aldama, formerly of Cuba and the Sudan, raised ire in many quarters. Porter was even named captain of the team at this year's World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, where she was sent into consternation by a request from a Daily Mail man to sing the National Anthem.
Tiffany Porter ignored criticism that she was a "Plastic Brit" saying she is proud to be American, British and Nigerian
Van Commenee has always taken the same line Jack Charlton did in selecting unlikely recruits for the Ireland football team, namely that if it was legal it was OK. He also reacted strongly in defence of Porter by banning the reporter involved for a period of time from UK Athletics media events.
He has often shown a willingness to stick his neck out. For instance, his decision to select Lynsey Sharp, the Scot who won the Olympic trials and the European title in Helsinki, for the Olympic 800m, even though she only had a B standard qualifying time, meant that only one place could be filled. Van Commenee had the option of picking three other runners who had all fulfilled the A standard, even though none had shown good form in the run-up to the Games. He was widely criticised for sticking with his gut instinct to select Sharp, who ultimately failed to reach the final in London 2012.
Among those who argued against his decision was the woman whom he had personally coached to the 2000 Olympic heptathlon title, Denise Lewis, who called it "a farce".
Personally, I think van Commenee took a brave and correct decision, even though it didn't pay off.
But I could not agree with the way he handled Phillips Idowu in the run-up to the London Olympics. Van Commenee and the idiosyncratic triple jumper have clearly never got on, and their relationship dipped to a new low last year when Idowu pulled out of the European team championships and van Commenee said UK Athletics had only heard of his injury via Twitter – a situation he described as "not acceptable".
Idowu insisted he had not used Twitter for this purpose, and had let UK Athletics know about his injury earlier, adding that Van Commenee had told "a blatant lie". Relations between the two degenerated as Idowu insisted he would not talk to Van Commenee again unless he received an apology – and then refused to take the head coach's proffered hand when it was publicly offered to him at the airport following the IAAF World Championships in Korea, where Idowu earned silver.
More recently, there was clearly a big problem coming into the Olympics with Idowu insisting he was not injured and van Commenee saying he was. It got nasty – but there was no excuse for the statement made by the British Olympic Association (BOA) on the eve of the Games saying they had written to Idowu asking for his medical records. That was ganging up – and van Commenee, who presumably knew about it, should not have had anything to do with it.
In the event Idowu, silver medallist in Beijing, was clearly out of shape and could not reach the final. But that was not the point.
Had just a couple of things gone differently on the track or in the field at the Olympic stadium, the question of van Commenee moving on would not even have been aired. As it is, he seems the prime mover in his own removal. It will be interesting to see where he ends up next – presumably, he will not be at a loose end for too long.
The downside to Van Commenee is his occasional lack of judgement in dealing with athletes. At times, he goes too far and the question raises itself – as indeed it does for Mourinho – "Is this all about him?" What mitigates that tendency is the delivery of performances, whether in the form of cups or medals. Van Commenee has not delivered to his own lights – and so now he delivers himself to another area of the sporting arena. Wherever it is, it is likely to gain overall by his arrival.Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.