T is for John Tarrant

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.

The Ghost Runner in 1957John Tarrant was possibly the greatest athlete of his generation who could break long-distance running records at will and yet his achievements were never acknowledged because of the rules governing amateurism and he is all but forgotten today.

Born in 1932 in Shepherd’s Bush, London, Tarrant, he was first abandoned by his father and then his mother died of TB during the war, leaving her son to the not so tender mercies of a children’s home.

His father resurfaced in 1947 and took John and his younger brother to live in Buxton in the Peak District of Derbyshire.

Always an athlete, Tarrant tried his hand at boxing, as did many 18-year-old boys of that era, but he gave up after only a handful of fights. The pain he could stand, but not the losing, however, those few fights were to cost him more than just cuts and bruises.

The thing he really enjoyed about the ring was the training, running across the Derbyshire moors with a pack of bricks on his back, he felt he could run forever. He aimed to become a marathon runner, his target the Rome Olympics that lay a few years ahead.

To do that he needed to join a recognised athletics club and on the form was the question he had dreaded – had he ever been paid money for sport? He chose to answer honestly, that he had once received £17 for a boxing match, and with that his sporting future was sealed.

This was in the days when the rules on amateurism were rigidly enforced, mostly by people who could afford not to work for a living. At the age of 20, Tarrant was summarily banned for life from competing in any athletics event, domestically or overseas, and with no leave of appeal.

John Tarrant

Those who passed judgment had forgotten the true meaning of the word amateur which stems from the Latin ‘amat’ meaning someone who takes part in the sport for love, and Tarrant certainly loved running.

He continued training and in 1956 he travelled to Liverpool and joined a race that included international marathon runners. Wearing moth-eaten plimsolls and a shirt with no number, Tarrant stormed through the field and led the race until he quietly left it after 20 miles.

The media immediately latched on to the story and christened him ‘The Ghost Runner’. In an interview with the Daily Express, Tarrant explained: ‘I ran to convince the AAA that I am purely amateur and race for the love of it. I needed to show I had the ability.’

He continued to demonstrate that ability for the next two years when he gatecrashed races all over Britain, despite the best efforts of the authorities to keep him out. Tarrant would turn up wearing a rudimentary disguise, riding on the back of his brother’s motorbike, and join the race near the start, but behind the leading runners and then ghost past them.

The public loved him and the authorities eventually had to cave in and allow him to run, but only in Britain and never for Britain. So he turned his back on his country and found challenges elsewhere.

The Ghost Runner

The Ghost Runner

In the 1960s, Tarrant set world records for 40 miles and 100 miles and defied apartheid as the only white runner in outlawed black races in South Africa where he is still a hero today, known as ‘a ghost among ghosts’.

Tarrant died in 1975 from the stomach cancer he had battled for some years, but not before committing his bitter autobiography to paper. In his obituary, Chris Brasher described him as ‘the most honest man I have ever met’.

You have to wonder if those competing in London this summer would do so as Tarrant did – without financial support and sponsorship and just for the love of the sport.

With acknowledgements to the Manchester Evening News, This is Derbyshire and the Independent.

Also see The Ghost Runner: the Tragedy of the Man they Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones, winner of the Best New Writer Award in the 2012 British Sports Book Awards.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • john 30th May 2012

    I enjoyed that!!!!

  • Wanda 30th May 2012

    Wow, what a powerful story, grips me to the core. Thank you for honorning this hero with this article. I’m so glad I now have heard of the great “Ghost Runner”. Marvelous piece.

  • Roger Green 30th May 2012

    only passingly familiar…interesting
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • photowannabe 30th May 2012

    What a shame to have such talent wasted.
    I admire his honesty and stick-to-it-ness.
    I don’t think the answer would be the same today for the London Olympics.

  • Chrisj 30th May 2012

    That’s a great story of someone who had something to prove and didn’t give up. Good for him!

  • John 30th May 2012

    Very informative T!

    T is for …
    Hope to see you.

  • Carol Carson 30th May 2012

    I had no idea of this story, and was completely under the spell of the drama from beginning to end. Thank you so much for passing on John Tarrant’s story. Sad, yes, but also, in a way a triumph of determination.

  • Jay from The Depp Effect 31st May 2012

    That just seems so unfair, doesn’t it? A case of the law being enforced to the letter against the spirit of that law. Poor old John Tarrant. 🙁

  • Trevor Rowley 2nd June 2012

    Having grown up in the Britain of the 40s, 50s and early 60s, I was aware of athletics, even at the top, being an amateur sport. We were inspired by the likes of Chris Chataway, Derek Ibbotson and Chris Brasher who seemed to live in a world of privilege at one of the top universities and therefore no time for professional sport and even a world record holder like Roger Bannister was an amateur whilst doubling up as an academic at either Oxford or Cambridge. My favourites were sprinters, Peter Radford and Dave Segal (I believe Radford went on to be an academic and a doctor of something or other followed by a position high up in the world of national athletics governance). The exception to this were the likes of sprinter, Dorothy Hyman (who was regularly photographed as a typist at her desk at the NCB (National Coal Board) offices at somewhere like Barnsley and also another Barnsleyite, Arthur Rowe, a mountain of a man who was European and also Commonwealth champion in the shot put in 1958. In a wave of publicity, Arthur left the world of amateur sport behind when he took up professional Rugby League and also tried his hand on the Highland Games circuit in Scotland. We hear nothing about either of them now but what’s to say that both of their careers might have gone in a completely different direction if they had been paid handsomely to compete. By comparison, today’s athletes are living in a totally different world. The crossover between amateur and professional sport was eventually exposed when we started using the expression, “shamateurism”. What a pity that some sportsmen got caught in the crossfire.


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