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John Tarrant: Sad shadow of the 'ghost runner' still stalks the track

As Olympic fever mounts, a new biography recalls the incredible story of Tarrant, the man British athletics tried to forget

Next summer, when the world's millions watch their Olympians parade beneath national flags, a lonely widow in a Hereford council flat will reach for the remote and silence her TV in mute fury. For 79-year-old Edie Tarrant, the Olympic flame sputtered out 50 years ago, doused by the tragedy that destroyed and devoured the man she surrendered everything for. No reminder of that pain comes easy. London celebrates, but Mrs Tarrant will merely mourn.

In his pomp during the Fifties and Sixties, her late husband was a legend; a long-distance folk hero; a real-life Alf Tupper known to the world not as John Edward Tarrant but simply as "the ghost runner"; now almost completely forgotten, his fate still throws a long, guilty shadow over British post-war sport. And the pampered ninnies who presided over it.

I stumbled across the story in the 1980s while making a documentary about working-class runners in Manchester. On his death bed in 1975 Tarrant, only 42, penned a clumsily bitter memoir that moved me much as Captain Scott's diaries always had; the reproachful words of men subsumed by their own ambitions.

Born in Shepherds Bush in 1932, Tarrant was a man bereft of good luck. During the war, as his beloved mother lay dying of TB, he was parcelled off to a brutalising children's home in Kent and left there to rot until his father resurfaced (with a new wife) in 1947. By this time, home had switched to the Peak District.

At the weekend Tarrant and his devoted younger brother Victor could choose between Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders at Buxton's Pavilion Gardens or boxing in the blood-spattered town hall. No contest for a seething adolescent; the 18-year-old bought some gloves and stepped into the ring. His choice would haunt him like a witch's curse.

After a handful of fights, he had had enough. It wasn't the pain – Tarrant's threshold in this regard was always superhuman – he just didn't like losing. He enjoyed the training more than the ring; striding alone on the High Peak under the skylarks, feeling as if he could run forever, becoming quietly certain that the marathon would be his future. Just a few years ahead of him were the Rome Olympics. He would be there, he felt sure. Wearing a blazer in the parade like his heroes.

For that to happen, he would need to join an AAA-affiliated running club, and on his application to join the Salford Harriers he was asked if he had ever taken money for sport. It was the one question he feared: should he lie, or reveal that as a hapless boxer he had trousered £17 for his pains, knowing that in the prevailing Corinthian spirit of high amateurism – invigilated by zealots who could afford not to work – this wasn't only a folly but a sin beyond pardon? Tarrant, as was his nature, chose honesty and was doomed.

Everyone knew the amateur rules were rotten; designed and policed by people of "gentlemanly status" who eyed the working man's need for cash with disdain and suspicion. The problem in the 1950s was that no one knew how to get rid of them. Aspirant members of the Amateur Rowing Association had to prove they had never stooped to "menial duty". In the late 19th century, any athlete found to have taken cash faced court action and six months' hard labour. Things had mellowed by Tarrant's day, but not by much. Aged 20, he was summarily banned for life – without leave of appeal – from competing in any athletics event, domestically or overseas. His Olympic fantasy lay still-born. Life as a councilplumber loomed large.

But Tarrant, wearing a rucksack packed with rocks, pounded the Derbyshire hills, growing stronger, faster and more angry with every patronising rejection he received. By the summer of 1956, it was a hell he could no longer live in. Arriving alone in Liverpool on a warm, August Saturday he calmly stepped unannounced into a crack field of international marathon runners, wearing moth-eaten plimsolls and a shirt with no number. For over 20 miles no one could touch him; then, just as suddenly, he was gone.

Within 24 hours, his story was out, and every newspaper wanted a piece of it. The Daily Express tracked him down to Buxton and tagged him "the ghost runner". "I ran to convince the AAA that I am purely amateur and race for the love of it," he told them. "I needed to show I had the ability."

For left-leaning tabloids such as the Daily Mirror, this dour, hard man was manna from heaven; a working-class underdog in a loaded fight against the chinless toffs they had hoped a Labour government would sweep away.For the next two years, "the ghost" gatecrashed races all over Britain, and as security increased to stop him, so did Tarrant's cunning. Apoplectic officials armed with his photograph would be left fuming when he hopped off the back of his brother's motor-cycle, slipped out of a crude disguise near the start and hared off after the leading pack, the crowd delightedly urging on the man with no number.

Finally, in 1958 – with one terrible caveat – the administrators caved in. Tarrant would be allowed to run in Britain, but never for Britain. There would be no GB blazer, no parade under the Italian sun. Instead, almost permanently broke, wearied by the battle and steadily weakened by stomach cancer, he took himself to new challenges beyond the reach of the "gentlemen players". In the 1960s world records would come at 40 miles and then 100 miles (over 12 non-stop hours around a track). In South Africa he tore up the apartheid rulebook, running as the only white in outlawed black races, a "ghost among ghosts"; he is still a hero there today, long after he succumbed to his illness in 1975.

In a moving obituary in The Observer, Chris Brasher described Tarrant as "the most honest man I have ever met". How many lesser athletes who have followed him with their sponsorship deals and their "supplements" would merit even this simple accolade? How many – when outlawed by their sport – would run 5,000 miles a year without one penny paid into their trust funds? Not enough, I suspect, to persuade Edie Tarrant to feel any differently about what she watches on the television next summer.

The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy Of The Man They Couldn't Stop by Bill Jones is published in hardback by Mainstream on 7 July, £12.99