At the press conference on the eve of the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships, Femke Bol was asked about the prospect of matching the feats of the legendary Fanny Blankers-Koen with her triple gold medal quest in the Bavarian capital, and about the reasons for the notable rise of Dutch athletics.
For almost three-quarters of a century, Blankers-Koen has held a historical stranglehold over the reputation of track and field in the Netherlands. The four gold medals she won at the London Olympics in 1948 - in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m - took 73 years to equal with the collective efforts of successive Dutch Olympic athletics squads.
Sifan Hassan’s double in the 5000m and 10,000m in Tokyo raised the post-Blankers Koen tally to four golds, Ria Stalman having won the discus in Los Angeles and Ellen van Langen the 800m in Barcelona in 1992.
More significantly, the eight medals of all colours that the Netherlands won in Tokyo represent a third of the nation’s total of 24 in their entire Olympic history.
“We had four Olympic medals in athletics in 50 years, and then we won eight in ten days in Tokyo,” said Charles van Commenee, head coach of the Dutch Athletics Federation.
As well as the two gold medals for Hassan, there were silvers for Anouk Vetter in the heptathlon, Abdi Nageeye in the marathon and the men’s 4x400m team, plus bronzes for Hassan at 1500m, Bol in the 400m hurdles and Emma Oosterwegel in the heptathlon.
This was following on from the triumph of topping the medal table for the first time at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun in 2021 with seven medals including gold medals from Bol again (400m), Nadine Visser (60m hurdles) and the men’s and women’s 4x400m teams.
In Munich, even with Hassan absent and Vetter bowing out of the heptathlon after six events because of injury - not to mention a flurry of three fourth-placed finishes on the final night - Van Commenee’s squad managed to gain six medals, just one less than they claimed on home ground in Amsterdam in 2016.
Bol emerged as the star of the championships, emulating Blankers-Koen’s three gold medals from 1950 in Brussels with a Dutch record of 49.44 in the 400m - the third fastest by a European in the 21st century and the fastest winning time at the European Championships since Marita Koch in 1986 - a championship record of 52.67 in the 400m hurdles and by anchoring the 4x400m relay team to victory in 3:20.87 with a sensational split of 48.52.
After a breakout bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships, Jessica Schilder continued her progress with gold in the shot put in which Jorinde van Klinken also took bronze to match that of Nienke Brinkmann in the women’s marathon on the first morning session of the championships.
Quite clearly, something is going seriously right for Dutch athletics.
According to Bol, the key is the squad being based at the National Olympic Training Centre at Papendal in the Vuelwe forestland on the outskirts of Arnhem.
“I think we just have a really good team ethic at Papendal,” she said. “We have a lot of good athletes who come there and train together. We are all happy and working hard together there.”
Van Commenee concurs. “Yeah, that’s certainly true. We have a broad spectrum, we’re winning medals in many events. And most of the training takes place in Papendal.
“We share the centre with nine sports and the national athletics squad has been based there since 2006. The concept is quite simple. We try to bring the best coaches there and connect them with the best talent, with the best possible services.
“In 2006 we started with four athletes and it’s now transformed into the home of our sport. We have 60 athletes in our team here and 45 of them are based at Papendal. There’s always space for other routes; distance runners have always trained in different places.
“There’s camaraderie among the athletes at Papendal, and the coaches make each other better. We also have young athletes who train there. They live there and study there,” he said.
On the culture of coaching in Papendal, Van Commenee said: “Athletes and coaches in our sport do not really grasp the concept of teamwork. It’s not in their DNA. We have to teach them and get them to understand what it means. It’s more than supporting each other verbally. It’s also to correct each other, or to support and be professional.
“We have some very talented young coaches. We invest in them and we educate them. Coaches have always been the primary influence in performance. And we need succession.”
At 64, van Commenee will be retiring and passing on the baton in October. The work he has been doing at Papendal over the past four years - in tandem with Ad Roskam, the performance director of the Dutch Athletics Federation - has utilised all of the nous he has amassed in a coaching career spanning multiple decades.
He has worked as a technical director with the Dutch Federation, as a technical director and then head coach with British athletics (and had spells as an advisor and then performance director with the Dutch National Olympic Committee. He has also coached Denise Lewis to Olympic heptathlon gold and Chinese shot putter Huang Zhihong to world silver.
“I’m quite optimistic that what we are doing at Papendal will continue for many decades,” said van Commenee. “At the World U20 Championships in Cali last month we had our best ever result [one gold, a silver and two bronzes].
“Collectively we’re very proud of what we have done. It’s great to create something out of what used to be nothing. In the past we always went to championships with maybe ten athletes, just participants. We had a target of one, or two, top eight positions. That’s it.
“Now, it’s different. We have a lot of different athletes winning medals. Not only that; we are fortunate that we have athletes at the moment who make people at home happy, because of their personalities.
“They’re well-spoken. They are cheerful. They’re not grumpy. They take responsibility. Also, when they don’t perform well, they do it in a gracious manner.
“You cannot find anyone who doesn’t like Femke Bol. There’s nobody who doesn’t have any sympathy with Sifan Hassan or Churandy Martina. They’re just nice, sparkling personalities. Anouk Vetter is another one.
“It gives a nice profile to our sport in our country, where in the past the audience only knew, let’s say, Ellen van Langen or Nelli Cooman or Dafne Schippers.
“Now we have a dozen. And they’re all happy. We’re a happy bunch.”