Today, running is one of the most inclusive of sports. Athletics clubs are open to all, and mass races such as the London marathon offer anyone with the bottle the chance to test themselves in one of the world’s great sport events. But running hasn’t always been so democratic. Victorian hang-ups about women and professionals (the latter a thinly veiled euphemism for working-class athletes) lingered well into the twentieth century. Women were barred from long-distance races for decades, and anyone who had ever accepted payment for participating in any sport was banned for life. This left the way open for a clique of self-funding male athletes to dominate the sport for years.
As the twentieth century wore on however, social attitudes were changing, and running’s draconian rules began to look old fashioned and unfair. But any change was resisted by the privileged elite of former athletes who controlled the sport. Frustrations built, and some excluded runners, feeling like they had exhausted all routes to participation, decided to take direct action.
Two key figures in this struggle were John Tarrant and Kathrine Switzer. Tarrant was a tough and talented, working-class runner from Derbyshire. He was refused entry to official races in the 1950s because as an 18 year old boxer he had received £17 in expenses, inadvertently stigmatising himself as a ‘professional’ for life. Switzer was an aspiring American marathoner who was barred from the 1967 Boston Marathon simply because she was a woman. Both decided to fight their exclusion in a similar way. They would gate-crash a race incognito, simultaneously achieving a sporting ambition and drawing attention to their plight.
Tarrant became a regular sight at road races in England, running without a number, hiding in the crowds at the start so as not to draw attention. Once the race was underway he was too fast for the officials to stop, and with the crowds roaring him on, he became more famous than many of his officially sanctioned rivals. In fact, so popular was he that race organisers started asking him to gate-crash their races, advertising the presence of the fabled ‘Ghost Runner’ in advance to boost crowd numbers!
Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as ‘K. Switzer’ dressed in an inconspicuous grey tracksuit. Although she couldn’t rely on her speed to escape angry officials she did have the advantage of being accompanied by her burly, hammer-throwing boyfriend, Thomas Miller. When one of the race’s organisers leapt onto the course to physically eject her, Miller brushed him aside. Switzer ran on to complete the race that was supposedly ‘too tough’ for women.
The Court of Public Opinion
The media played an important role in both stories. Tarrant was an exceptional athlete whose David versus Goliath story was mana from heaven to the newspapers. He built up a powerful group of supporters, including many fellow runners, and eventually the pressure told – he was cleared to compete nationally. Unfortunately his international ban remained, barring him from the Olympics, his greatest goal. However, he went on to win many official races and broke two world records at ultra-distance before his tragically early death at just 42.
Switzer wasn’t the only female runner to gate-crash the 1967 Boston Marathon. She wasn’t even the fastest (that was Bobbi Gibb, 3 hours 27 mins). Her good fortune was that the incident when the race official tried to grab her was caught on camera. The picture created a media sensation and generated the sympathy and support that eventually led to the opening up of the Boston Marathon to female runners in 1972. Switzer went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974.
Thankfully for runners today, the old barriers have been broken down. The accessibility and diversity of mass participation running have become some of the sport’s most attractive features. Trailblazers like Tarrant and Switzer played a small but important role in helping this happen.
This article was originally published in Running magazine, September 2016. www.runnersradar.com
You can read the full story of John Tarrant in Bill Jones’ excellent book: The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man they Couldn’t Stop. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Runner-Tragedy-They-Couldnt/dp/1845966066