Tributes to legendary London Marathon supporter John Bryant

Tributes have been paid to John Bryant, one of the most influential figures and biggest characters in London Marathon history, who has died at the age of 76.

Bryant was a talented athlete, a coach to the legendary Zola Budd and one of the country’s most respected journalists, serving in senior positions at the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the Daily Mail during a Fleet Street career that spanned more than four decades.

He was a great supporter of the London Marathon from the outset and combined his journalistic skills with his passion for running to help develop the event into the greatest marathon in the world.

Bryant was a close friend of London Marathon co-founder Chris Brasher and competed in 29 editions of the race himself. He went on to write The London Marathon: The History of the Greatest Race on Earth, which was published in 2006 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the race, and served for 10 years on the board of the London Marathon Charitable Trust. He was Chairman of The Trust from 2011 to 2017, before becoming Vice President.

Sir Rodney Walker, who succeeded Bryant as Chairman of The Trust, said: “I was fortunate to have served as John’s deputy for a number of years and benefited from his knowledge of the formation & history of the London Marathon. Along with many people, I was saddened when following a sudden illness, he found himself unable to continue as Chairman of The London Marathon Charitable Trust. Typical of the man, as he began his recovery, he gave me his total support as his successor. His bravery as he recovered from his illness brought him huge respect and affection, so much so, the Trustees were unanimous in inviting him to become Vice President. He will be sadly missed.”

Hugh Brasher, Event Director of London Marathon Events (LME), said: “John was an incredible supporter not only of the London Marathon but also of my father. His wisdom and knowledge across sport and media, were immeasurably helpful and their friendship, camaraderie and enjoyment of a long run, followed by a pint or two plotting their next escapade, are memories I will always treasure.”

Nick Bitel, Chief Executive of LME, said: “John was one of the earliest supporters of the Marathon and served as a Trustee for many years. His encyclopaedic knowledge of running, the media and of the Marathon was invaluable.

“Even when he retired as a Trustee, he continued his connection to the Marathon as Vice President and, when his health allowed, was to be seen in the Finish grandstands for long periods on race day.”

Bryant fell in love with running as a child in the village of Haselbury Plucknet, Somerset, when he was able to catch up with the school bus as it drove through the village.

While studying law at Oxford University, he was captain of the cross-country running club and represented British Universities on the track.

He soon stepped up to marathon running and after testing his body’s capability over the distance, he ran his personal best of 2:21 at the 1973 Harlow Marathon.

Despite plenty of attempts, that PB would never be broken but for Bryant the love of running marathons trumped everything else and he was a proud starter in the very first London Marathon in March 1981.

Recalling how he was invited to race in the inaugural edition, Bryant told Martin Yelling’s Marathon Talk podcast in 2012: “Chris Brasher wanted to whip up some publicity for the event so he entered quite a few newspaper people and Hertz, the car rental company, put up a prize for the first media finisher - and I won. I think they kept it up for a couple of years so I have got two of the biggest trophies ever for winning the media award for the first couple of London Marathons. And the prize went with an enormous amount of Champagne and a week’s free car hire anywhere in the world with Hertz!”

On his overall memories of the first race, he added: “There were helicopters overhead, all sorts of shenanigans going on and only one start so it was a hell of a squeeze to get through the gates. But somehow I managed to get to the front, and I actually led the race for quite a while. I ran quite fast for the first 10 to 12 miles, but then I started to get a pain in my hamstring and by three or four miles from the finish I could hardly walk.” He still finished in a respectable time of 2:45.

Bryant would continue to run the London Marathon both before and after he was hit by a car while out running where he sustained an injury so severe he had doctors telling him he would never walk again.

One year he even ran in fancy dress costume, dressed as the famous Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri who won over the hearts of the world when he won the 1908 Olympic marathon in London only to be disqualified for receiving help from umpires who had helped him after he collapsed with exhaustion.

Bryant had such a love for this epic marathon tale that in 2008, on the 100th anniversary of the race, he ran the full route of the 1908 Olympic Marathon from Windsor Castle to White City.

Bryant was also had an integral part in another of the most famous stories in British athletics history.

He was the Daily Mail features editor when he heard word of a young South African who was running astonishing times for 5000m and 3000m. He tasked one of his reporters to track the athlete down and soon had on his desk the astonishing story of Zola Budd, the barefoot teenage runner from Bloemfontain.

Once his story had been published in the Daily Mail, it sparked a campaign from the newspaper to get her UK citizenship so she could compete in the 1984 Olympics. Despite not approving of the media storm, he agreed to help Budd as an athlete, first training alongside her and then becoming her coach. It was in this capacity that he joined Budd at the 1984 Olympics where she had her famous clash with the USA’s home favourite Mary Decker.

Bryant died peacefully at his home in Surrey on Thursday following a long illness.

He is survived by his wife, Carol, two sons, Matthew and William, and six grandchildren.