Time to turn the athletics submarine around again

‘‘A SUPERTANKER sailing into better waters.’’ That was how Dave Collins, UK Athletics’ performance director, described the state of British athletics after the Olympics.

Sadly for Collins, it was a case of sinking rather than swimming as his upbeat assessment failed to cut much ice with his superiors.

Collins’ contract with UK Athletics, which was due to expire in March 2009, was terminated after Beijing, where Britain’s athletes won four medals; gold for Christine Ohuruogu in the 400 metres, silver for Phillips Idowu and Germaine Mason in the triple jump and high jump respectively and bronze for Tasha Danvers in the 400m hurdles.

That was the same number, albeit different colours, as in Athens four years ago, but one below the pre-Games target set by UK Sport, which distributes lottery funding to elite sport.

Aside from the four medals, there were also 13 fourth to eighth place finishes, three British records, 50 per cent of athletes at or over a season’s best and eighth place in the athletics medals table.

And it was the fourthplace finishes which were the greatest cause of frustration for Collins.

Lisa Dobriskey got her tactics badly wrong to just miss out on a medal in the women’s 1500m, the men’s 4x400m relay team suffered from a lack of strength in depth, Goldie Sayers’ British record in the javelin was not quite enough for a medal and Kelly Sotherton moving up from fifth to fourth in the heptathlon after silver medallist Lyudmila Blonska was expelled for failing a drugs test.

Britain’s success in other sports, and cycling in particular, prompted unfavourable comparisons with athletics, but Collins made a valid argument when he pointed out the difference in the strength of competition.

The number of top-quality cycling nations can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand, while more than 40 different nations won medals in the Bird’s Nest.

But such arguments are not what the British public are interested in hearing, especially when the likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton are crushing the opposition in the velodrome, and Rebecca Adlington is securing gold medals and a world record in the pool.

And so it falls to the new head coach of UK Athletics, Charles van Commenee, to deliver the goods leading up to, and at, the London Olympics in 2012.

Van Commenee previously worked in Britain with heptathletes Denise Lewis and Kelly Sotherton, and was the popular choice to become performance director after the Athens Games in 2004.

But when he was not offered the job, Van Commenee moved back to Holland to become technical director for the Netherlands Olympic Committee and led Holland to 16 medals, including seven golds, in Beijing – the country’s second most successful Olympics.

Sotherton is among those athletes who will welcome Van Commenee’s return, even though he reduced her to tears in Athens.

After transforming Sotherton, pictured right, into a world-class athlete, Van Commenee lambasted her for running ‘‘like a wimp’’ in the 800m, the final event of the heptathlon, when he believed she could have won the silver medal instead of her bronze.

‘‘Charles is a great coach.

He’s worked with world and Olympic champions and he knows how to get results,’’ Sotherton said.

‘‘He is very tough and not short of words. There’s only a few of us still around who know what he is like and I think some people will get a very rude awakening.

‘‘He works hard, and nothing is left to chance.

“If things happen, it is because he has made them happen.’’ Van Commenee has so far kept a low media profile, and it was left to UK Athletics chief executive Niels de Vos to respond to the announcement of the funding the sport will have to work with ahead of London 2012.

Athletics was awarded £25.1m by UK Sport, down from the £26.5m allocated before the Beijing Games.

But De Vos was not surprised with the small cut and promised athletics would surprise a few people in four years’ time.

‘‘We’ve already made a lot of changes to our programme, both in terms of tightening up the management of it and the numbers of athletes that we fund,’’ De Vos said.

‘‘I don’t think there are going to be many things I can’t buy that I would have been able to, it’s just a funding package in a different landscape.

‘‘Athletics will be the showcase sport of 2012.

“I think the key thing is Britain’s performance within that showcase and all the changes have been geared towards 2012.’’

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