Coach to ban Olympic marching but not Twitter

IAN COLE reports from the first of a series of special SJA lunches counting down with just a year to go to the London Olympics. Pictures by STEVE ROWE

Charles van Commenee: his team is on target

Britain’s athletes will not be banned from using Twitter or other social networking sites in the build-up to next year’s London Olympic Games, despite last month’s row over Phillips Idowu’swithdrawal from the European team championships.

Idowu’s action incensed Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics, who said that only “clowns and attention-seekers” used Twitter. But today van Commenee told an SJA lunch in London’s Fleet Street that he would not be issuing a ban. “Phillips and I have both decided to leave that incident behind us,” he said, refusing to be drawn on the digital spat with the triple jump world champion.

“But I will have a meeting with the athletes and on the agenda I shall want to address the use of social media. Personally, I stick to the facts, which is good advice. If athletes share facts rather than feelings, you can’t argue with the facts.”

Other national teams, such as New Zealand’s, have decided to ban athletes from using Twitter, Facebook or other social media at Games time, but van Commenee said this was neither practical nor desirable. “When you have a ban you have to know what the sanctions are going to be if you break it. It’s impossible to check on everyone 24 hours a day anyway. When we travel we have maybe 100 people, staff included. So we refer to common sense, give guidelines – but we won’t ban it.

“When you give athletes advice with good reason they usually follow it. They are mature people.”

Van Commenee returned to Britain two-and-a-half years ago to take up UKA’s top coaching job having previously coached Denise Lewis to Olympic heptathlon gold in 2000 and Kelly Sotherton to bronze in 2004, in the meantime developing a no-nonsense reputation. So while he is prepared to tread softly over the Twitter issue, he is unequivocal in his insistence that no British track and field athlete will take part in London’s Olympic Opening Ceremony 54 weeks’ time.

“There may be a little bit of noise from the athletes over this, but it’s just not feasible,” van Comenee told his audience of almost 30 journalists from national and Sunday newspapers and agencies. “It doesn’t fit in with a professional preparation for the biggest event of their lives. They would not go shopping for eight hours before their biggest event so why would you be on your feet for that long?

“You will not see track and field athletes on July 27 in London,” he said, effectively ruling out of the ceremony any members of the track and field team from carrying the Union flag in the march-past. In the past, the British Olympic Association has tended to choose a past Olympic champion for the honour, so van Commenee’s decision effectively rules out 400m gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu, who grew up in east London within sight of the Oympic Park, from leading in her team mates in front of 80,000 spectators.

“They can all go to the closing ceremony,” van Comenee said.

Van Commenee is comfortable with UK Sport’s target for his athletics team at the London Games – eight medals, including one gold – but he refuses to identify where those medals might be won.

He said: “It’s important we are not dependent on one or two athletes. We need 15 in the medal zone, close enough to the rostrum that they can almost touch it.

“In Beijing Germaine Mason and Tasha Danvers won medals. One year out, nobody had even thought about it. In 2003, Kelly Sotherton didn’t make the team for the world championships. Next year she won an Olympic bronze.”

British athletics is perhaps already feeling the benefit of the Olympic dividend, with three 19-year-olds – all of them just 14 when the 2012 Games were awarded to London – having broken national records in the past couple of weeks to put themselves among potential contenders for medals at this year’s world championships, in Daegu, Korea, next month, and in London next year.

Clare Furlong, UKA's communications head, and Barry Newcombe, the SJA chairman, listen as van Commenee explains the British athletics team policies ahead of the Olympics

Van Commenee feels much depends on keeping key athletes fit throughout the coming year. “Injuries happen all the time. Our aim is to bring the number down because the biggest factor in assessing our success will be the number of fit, healthy athletes. If we have a fit squad in 2012, we can meet our targets.

“We had a pack of injuries in May and June, which I don’t want next year. One or two can slip in the bathroom, have a car accident or get sick. It’ll never be perfect, but the situation is improving.”


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