Tarrant, born in Camberwell in 1932, had a tough childhood marked by the death of his mother from TB and years in a brutal children's home during the Second World War. A spell as a teenage boxer in Derbyshire brought little success and a total of £17 prize money - but under the strict rules on amateurism enforced by the Amateur Athletics Association this was enough to prevent him taking part in any mainstream athletics events. These pernicious rules not only banned runners like Tarrant who had earned pocket money in unrelated events as a young person, but also enforced a boycott of people like him by other athletes. Athletes could lose their amateur status if they were found to have taken part in any competition with somebody who wasn't an ameteur.
Banned from officially taking part in races, Tarrant started turning up anyway and running without a race number. Gate crashing events like the 1956 Liverpool marathon and the following year's Doncaster-to-Sheffield Marathon led to him being nick-named 'The Ghost Runner' by the press. Official results left out his name - the AAA didn't recognise him as a runner - but his cause generated lots of supportive publicity.
|John Tarrant running without a number|
Taking part in this event had unexpected consequences. On the day he wasn't the only unofficial runner - there were several black and Indian runners who ran but who were also denied recognition - this was a Whites Only race at the height of Apartheid in South Africa. Under the Separate Amenities Act, it was illegal for black and white athletes to even share changing rooms and other facilities.
A Natal Runners Association had been formed in the late 1960s to fight the racist exclusion of black athletes from the Comrades race. In 1970 they decided to put on a non-segregated 50 mile race of their own, and to make it a genuinely multi-racial event they needed to attract white runners. In the 1970 Comrades Marathon, 'scores of white runners had worn black armbands in support of the black athletes competing alongside them as numberless ghosts' (Jones), but only one white runner was prepared to actually run in the non-segregated Goldtop race in 1970 - John Tarrant, who finished first that year and the following year.
Tarrant continued running until his death from late-diagnosed cancer in 1975 at the age of 42.
|Tarrant (left) after winning the 1968 London to Brighton run, with runner-up T.R.Baker|
(see pathe news reel of this race)