Olympics: British athletics boss making light of hurdles leading to London 2012

By Simon Turnbull

Charles van Commenee denies that he was the "high-ranking person in UK Athletics" who described Jessica Ennis as "fat". Photo / AP
Charles van Commenee denies that he was the "high-ranking person in UK Athletics" who described Jessica Ennis as "fat". Photo / AP

Charles van Commenee is sitting in the patio of a Roman hotel fielding questions about Fatgate, National Anthemgate, Plastic Britgate, Twittergate, Opening Ceremonygate - basically, all of the gates-cum-hurdles that have sprung up on his horizon on the road to London 2012.

He gives the occasional wince, but not because the subject matter is uncomfortable to him - rather because the odd question or observation makes him laugh.

"I was in Amsterdam the other day and fell off my bicycle," the Dutchman in charge of the British track-and-field team explains. "My ribs are broken."

The 53-year-old is happy to spend much of the hour answering queries relating to the alleged fatness of Jessica Ennis, the need to learn the National Anthem, his relationship with Phillips Idowu after their spat over Twitter, and various other media controversies that have arisen. He knows it is part of his job as the public face of British athletics.

Van Commenee has dealt with some of the issues already: the question of Ennis being allegedly called "fat" by a "high-ranking person in UK Athletics", which he denies was himself; the question of his banning athletes from taking part in the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games on July 27 (the fact is the bulk of the British athletics team will be at holding camps in France and Portugal still training for their events, which don't start until a week later); and his relationship with Idowu since the pair fell out over the disputed terms of the triple jumper's withdrawal from the British team for last summer's European Team Championships, when he described Twitter as being a medium "for clowns and attentions seekers".

Then the question of the National Anthem is raised. The Daily Mail has been banned by UK Athletics since one of its reporters asked the US-born, US-raised but British-qualified Tiffany Porter to sing the words to God Save the Queen when she was appointed team captain on the eve of the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March.

"I forgot the 'Plastic Brits'," Van Commenee says, using the label manufactured by the newspaper that brought us Zola Budd in a British Olympic vest. "In Olympic year all sorts of rubbish comes up ... This is nothing compared to what I had to go through in preparation for Beijing."

At the 2008 Olympics, Van Commenee was chef de mission of the entire Dutch team, in charge of all sports. "It was international then," he continues. "May I remind you in the lead-up to Beijing there were lots of issues around Taiwan, Tibet, smog, human rights, not having the ability to express yourself in public, child labour. And all of these things had to be addressed by me.

"Now I represent a sport. At that time I represented a nation. And those were, in my mind, serious issues. The issues I deal with now are partly not serious."

So was there pressure in the Netherlands for Van Commenee to withdraw the national squad from the Beijing Olympics because of political issues? "Absolutely," he says. "Much more than there was in Britain."

So, back to serious matters: in light of the furore of Porter being asked to sing the National Anthem, (she told the man from the Mail that she knew the lines but did not feel it necessary to recite them at a press conference), will Van Commenee be issuing the words to everyone to pre-empt any future media ambush? "They know the words," he replies. "They will."

Why is he so sure? "Because I will ask the question," he says. "I'm not going to rehearse everybody, because we will have 90 athletes, but the people that matter - let's say the relevant ones. The ones on your radar."

Does it really matter whether anybody knows the words to the National Anthem? "It matters because you'll ask the question," Van Commenee replies. "It matters because if they don't somebody will make an issue of it."
But what about the lines of communication between Van Commenee and Idowu? Have they opened up since last summer's verbal stand-off between the head coach and the European champion triple jumper?

"He jumped very well in Daegu [at the 2011 World Championships] and the situation then is no different to now," Van Commenee says. "I stay in close contact with the people around him."

Last week Van Commenee was in touch with Ennis "just to check if she was okay or if she had any issues" following claims made by her coach Toni Minichiello that a "high-ranking person" in UK Athletics had called her "fat". The Dutchman denied that he was the culprit. He said he knew that people would presume it was him. But why? "Because I'm leading the programme and I am the public face of athletics," he says. "I don't think people are reading the newspaper and thinking my second assistant may ask these sort of questions."

Less than two months before the Olympic Games begin, despite all of the "issues", Van Commenee appears to be at ease and enjoying his profession. "Yes, I am enjoying it," he says. "I could have easily stayed in Holland in a nice job but I preferred this because it is such a special thing to go through, to experience and be part of. The three years leading up to this have been preparation. Now it's business time."

- Independent

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