John 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.
Born in 1932 in Shepherd’s Bush, London, Tarrant was first abandoned by his father and then his mother died of TB 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.
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.
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.
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.