NONFICTION: When you have a gift for running, but an arbitrary rule prevents you from competing, what do you do? John Tarrant ran.
While fans of competitive sports are often fiercely loyal to their chosen sport — try mediating a conversation between a hockey fan and a basketball fan — one trait they all share is the spectacle of the actual competing. It’s exciting, and it gives us heroes to cheer for and villains (often the New York Yankees) to boo. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, though, hidden by the action. Bringing us the spectacle requires organizations, businesses, negotiations and vast rulemaking designed, for the most part, to maintain that spectacle.
Some of those rules are holdouts from when sports were different, and this is the focus of Bill Jones’ book (“The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop,” Pegasus Books, 352 pages, $26.95).
John Tarrant was a teenager in the 1950s, doing what teenagers do — trying out different sports, seeing where his talents and interests would land. When he looked to running, he found he had a gift. He also discovered that he wouldn’t be able to compete professionally because of an arcane rule prohibiting taking payment for participation in amateur sports. As a teenage boxer, he’d been paid a paltry £17 for a match, and that was enough to ban him from running — for life.
As a child, Tarrant spent years in Lamorbey Children’s Home, sent there by his parents for safety during World War II. Between defending himself and his brother from the other children (“packs of wolves”) and the unrelenting routine and discipline from the house staff, his character was formed: He was hardened, made stubborn. These experiences are part of this book, providing insight into who he would become and how he would respond to his ban from running.
His response was to run. Tarrant knew he had the potential to break world records, and if the business of competition wouldn’t allow him to run, well, let them try to catch him. Sneaking into races in a long coat, hiding his intent, he would burst out of the coat and crowds at the starting pistol and, the only runner without the sanctioned number on his chest, would run.
He ran, and won, over and over, breaking records, letting his skill make the case against the rules blocking him. Tarrant usually managed to stay one step ahead of organizers; even as word spread of “the ghost runner” and they became guarded against his sudden appearance, he frequently managed to outwit them. A lot of the spectacle of sports comes from star players, gifted athletes who repeatedly amaze and overcome the odds. Tarrant’s battle continued throughout his life, competing against other runners as well as a system that wanted to deny him his passion. His refusal to acquiesce makes this story of his successes all the more exciting and inspiring.