30 June 2002
Running made him royal. Three days short of his 21st birthday Matt Yates took the bronze in the 800 metres at the Auckland Commonwealth Games and was hailed as the natural heir to Britain’s line of middle distance kings stretching from Wooderson to Bannister to Coe to Cram to Elliott. But royalty brought temptation and, like Oscar Wilde, Matt Yates found the best part was yielding to it.
“I got away with murder,” he now says with his Essex boy laugh, a bit fuller-faced than in those glory days, but still an imposing 6ft 4in of blond athletic grace and power. “If I’d been a footballer I would have been in the papers every weekend. People said I was following history, they were all desperate to meet the next white middle distance runner, they threw contracts at me, invited me to parties. I spent half the time with my girlfriend in Kensington. The old man was going spare about it.”
Mike Yates is today the strength and conditioning coach for Bath rugby club. Back then he was a fine all-round athlete and PE teacher in Basildon among whose mentors had been a disciplinarian from Kent now better known as the father of that well known late-night jogger, Mick Jagger. “Matt was an interesting lad to be with,” says Mike Yates with affectionate understatement. “He was a nightmare at school, I lost count of the times he got suspended, things like the orange-throwing incident. But athletics provided the challenge. Looking back, I’m amazed how well he did.”
The paternal reservations are not just confined to his son’s rather un-monastic approach to training. “I don’t think we ever realised quite how much affect his asthma had,” says Mike, who coached his offspring until 1995, “not just physically but psychologically, too. In 1989 he had to stop training in the autumn with a viral illness and he got pneumonia before the 1992 Olympics, when he was in excellent form.”
Neither is Yates the sort of creature who dwells too long in the past and when Matt swept up to explore his old training haunts around Richmond Park on Friday morning in the gold BMW estate he gets with his development job with Goretex, we were soon on a rollercoaster ride of the then and now. All pursued with an unapologetic relish that makes you understand the father’ verdict: “You either love him or loathe him. I would be biased.”
Matt tells of the moment in May ’89 when he realised the force was with him. “I done this session three months before the selection trial at Hornchurch, running with the 400-metre boys. I was doing 49-second four hundreds and I was only just twenty. That was massive. That was world record pace. That was the session that said you’re on the way.”
But he also recalls the `Hamburger Lout’ label tagged on him when he complained about the food on his first international trip to Cologne and how he used the dislike of the journalist who wrote it to drive him through the two months of pre-Commonwealth Games training at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. “The most exciting thing there,” he says, “was a set of 6ft 2in rowing birds who had been biomechanically measured so they all had the same length of arms and legs.”
The training and maybe the “biomechanics” did the trick in the 800 metres final which also saw Seb Coe finish sixth in the last race of his illustrious career. “I was bombing,” Matt says. “People didn’t rate me but I was very confident I would get a medal. I should really have won the gold but the two Kenyan boys got first kick on me.” Next year he took New York’s Fifth Avenue Mile and blew the £5,000 prize in 48 hours. In 1992 he won the European 1500 metres indoor title but also brought the one great regret of his career, his illness and failure at the Barcelona Olympics.
“I was really flying,” says Matt. “I’d just broken the course record in Granada, one minute 46 at altitude, quite a time. Then I went on the drink all night with the infamous Dennis Mitchell and collapsed at the airport next morning. That’s where it all went wrong. I was quite ill at Barcelona. I put so much pressure on myself. I got to the semi-final but just caned it. I could certainly have won a medal but I just didn’t want to be there.”
The pale blue eyes roll a shade oddly as he recalls the nervousness which beset him and admits that his brashness was often a front, that his dyslexia ruined his school days – “they said I’d just be a shelf stacker” – and that athletics was losing its appeal long before a last attempt at getting ready for Sydney 2000 forced the racing chapters to close.
“But I still enjoy running,” he says. “It’s given me the bottom line. I have a nice house in Brentwood and there’s nothing better than having some of my mates round, going for a run. Last year I did the London Marathon and I’m hoping to do New York this time with Steve Cram.
“One of the problems is that I was given so much so early by so many,” is the measured judgement of the 33-year-old father of two young girls with quite a future in marketing and PR ahead of him. “I was tagged up to be put into the athletics royal family straightaway. The heritage and all that adds a hell of a lot of expectation and I behaved more like a Prince Harry who wasn’t going to get the big job. I enjoyed riding the wave and everything that came with it. I can’t change things, it was a good laugh and I would probably do the same again.
“What is strange,” he continues, “is that I now tell others to behave themselves. Yesterday I was talking to European junior 800 metres silver medallist Nick Andrews and getting all paternalistic, telling him to focus, to avoid the parties, to definitely not be like me.”
A rather saner star had done the same to him. Seb Coe was and is Matt’s hero. “He was very talented,” said Coe, “but thinking of Matt always reminds me of the story of the Essex man explaining to the judge what he had done with his money: spent some on drink, some on women, some on gambling – and wasted the rest.”
Earlier on Friday morning Yates had run the Thames towpath and set himself up the steep shoulder of Petersham Hill as it climbs to Richmond Terrace gardens. It is a view immortalised by Turner and 20 years ago was a favourite training trek of Coe. “I remember it well,” says Lord Coe, “and at the top you see the house of what is now Sir Michael Jagger. Whether the world is yet ready for Sir Matthew Yates is probably another question.”