Engaging and poignant story of a marathon man cruelly denied his quest for Olympic glory

William Hill Sports Book of the Year award -- the contenders

The winner of the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year will be revealed next Monday.  This week, The Sports Bookshelf presents a run-down of the seven titles on the short list. Today:

The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop (Mainstream)


John Tarrant was something of a celebrity in the 1950s and 60s, mingling with the crowds at high-profile long-distance running events, then suddenly joining the race himself, having arrived with his vest and shorts hidden beneath a long overcoat.  He became known as the Ghost Runner.  The popular press loved him.

But his appearances on the front and back pages were more than a stunt.  Often, if he didn’t collapse from exhaustion first, he would win the race, leaving crack marathon runners trailing in his wake as he set and maintained a fearsome pace.

Tarrant had dreamed of being an Olympic athlete and wanted to join Salford Harriers, hoping it would lead to a place in the Great Britain marathon team at the Rome Olympics in 1960. But when he completed his application to join the club he felt he should declare that, as a teenager in Buxton, he had been paid to take part in boxing matches.

The sums involved added up to just £17 and he expected his admission at worst to bring a mild rebuke.  Instead, the blazered officials at the Amateur Athletics Association, still dominated by a wealthy Oxbridge elite, told him that this made him a professional and banned him from competition -- for life.

So Tarrant became the mystery runner, turning up time and again to gatecrash events and deliver a bitter message to those who had denied him his dream.

Tarrant died of cancer in 1975, aged only 42, and his story might have slipped away had Bill Jones, who was making a television documentary about working class runners in Manchester, not been handed a copy of a slim autobiography Tarrant had written himself before he died.  Jones was intrigued by the man and the story, which formed the basis for an engaging book, brilliantly written.


A tragic, poignant and touching portrayal of one man's battle to have his talent recognised and the petty rules held by the AAA at the time over-turned.
--- Derby Telegraph.

Nothing can disguise the fact that this is a terrific story - a comic strip hero made flesh, with all the human complications that entails. If I was a movie producer, I’d snap up the rights in a trice.
--- John Preston, Daily Mail.

One of THE running books of 2011
--- Running and Life. 


Bill Jones is a former television executive and documentary maker who spent more than 20 years with Granada TV.

* * * * * * * 

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world's longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. As well as a £23,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races. 

The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; broadcaster Danny Kelly; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop. 

The winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstone’s Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, on Monday 28th November.

A Life Too Short
32 Programmes

The shortlist in full:
1. Among the Fans: From Ashes to the Arrows, a Year of Watching the Watchers by Patrick Collins (Wisden Sports Writing)
2. Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)
3. The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing)
4. Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson by Paul Kimmage (Simon & Schuster)
5. Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar (Orion)
6. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)
7. 32 Programmes by Dave Roberts (Bantam Press)

More on the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

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