Sunday, July 24, 2011
The Ghost Runner
In some sense the antithesis to the Oxbridge steeped Charriots of Fire, it tells the story of John Tarrant, a highly gifted - and working class - runner who was prevented from competing due to being a "dirty pro" (having naively earned and owned up to earning a measly 17 pounds from boxing as a teenager) by the "toffs in suits and trilbies". The book is rather a historical account based on a reportedly terse autobiography and interviews the author conducted with people wrapped up in the events; nevertheless it makes for a gripping story indeed.
All the elements of the ludicrously hypocritical British class structure are laid bare as pompous officials (who, by the way, are amongst those who most seem to benefit financially from the sport they are suffocating) find ever more convoluted reasons why Tarrant should not be allowed to compete. Until as recently as 1981, athletics was a purely amateur affair; while today the word professional is almost synonymous with excellence, the ideals of the time were that one should compete for the love of the sport and not for financial motivation. To some extent it is possible to understand this sentiment if we remember that money was thought to have the same corrupting power as performance enhancing drugs do today. But the reality was that the ban on earnings from athletic was just a means to restrict the competition to those who were otherwise "independently wealthy". I have to say I found it hard to understand how the furiously capitalist USA could be swept up by this, at a time when they were going to war with the communist Vietnam.
The protagonist is not really someone you necessarily like or even admire - he is pig headed to the point of boring and irritating nearly everyone around him and selfish to the point of leaving his family on the border of poverty so that he may pursue his fanciful and often arbitrary ambitions. But he is certainly someone you can empathize with and, to some extent, recognize in yourself if you have ever run or become obsessed with anything, running or otherwise.
Nor was his talent so unequivocal that the injustices he endured were ever overturned. Much of the book leaves you wondering "what if" without ever being sure that things would really have turned out so differently, however just his cause. Running as a"ghost" - an unofficial entrant without a racing number - he did win numerous Marathons and Ultramarathons and even held World records in the 40 mile and 100 mile distances for a time, but he became infatuated with the elusive Comrades Marathon, a grueling 54 mile event held in South Africa. Incredibly, his ban followed him there although in Apartheid South Africa, he was no longer alone, no longer running as the only ghost runner. Until only months after his premature death, aged only 42, the Comrades Marathon was strictly "for those of the white race". I'm sure the Hollywood bloodhounds can smell a good story in Tarrant's participation as the only white runner (because everyone else was too scared or stood to lose too much) in a rebellious mixed race alternative to the Comrades, the first time blacks and whites had ever competed side by side. It seems that the nearest he ever got to happiness was in South Africa, a persona non-grata amongst personae non-grata. Unfortunately, we are left with a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, had his performance not been so dogged by the stomach problems he suffered, which eventually mutated into the cancer which killed him.
Reading this book has definitely put things into perspective in many ways. Highly recommended.