Iconic 800m runner who ran 1:43.98 and won the 1992 World Cup reveals his ‘wild child’ past in an entertaining autobiography
David Sharpe is best known as being Steve Cram’s talented but underperforming training partner. When the Jarrow Arrow was smashing world records at 1500m and the mile in the 1980s, Sharpe was nicknamed the “Jarra Sparra” and often found making headlines for the wrong reasons after various incidents involving the police.
Now, in a hard-hitting autobiography out this month, Sharpe reveals all. Written with Brian Gardner and entitled Enigma on the Track: Wild Child to World Champion, the former 800m runner remembers the incidents that led to him becoming one of the sport’s most iconic characters during a golden age of British athletics.
In a brutally honest life story, there are tales of being arrested for “causing harassment, alarm and distress” at a nightclub, being found guilty of assault (charges that were later dropped) and getting into a white-collar boxing fight after his athletics career ended.
The 56-year-old also got into scrapes with the law while pursuing two of his other passions – motorbike riding and bird watching – in addition to a brush with cancer.
Cram says in the foreword to the book: “From the moment he turned up at our track in Jarrow with his shock of red hair and toothy grin he had everyone’s attention. Initially it was his raw running ability that raised eyebrows but increasingly we got to know the character that would set Sharpey apart from the rest.”
The book is dedicated to coach Jimmy Hedley, who died in 2004 aged 77. Some of the best anecdotes involve Hedley, too, such as Sharpe and his coach chasing feral cats around Athens before competing in the World Junior Championships.
For training enthusiasts, there are details of the work Sharpe and Cram used to do. However, Sharpe admits his body could not handle the same mileage Cram managed. Even on low mileage, Sharpe suffered plenty of injuries such as multiple stress fractures in his shins.
Sharpe and Cram clearly got on brilliantly, although they did fall out once when Sharpe sneakily borrowed Cram’s new car for a spin around the streets of North East England while the multiple world record-holder was doing a long warm-down run. Sharpe was caught in the act and Cram wasn’t happy, although they soon made up.
“Crammy was aware of what was going on,” Sharpe says, on his various adventures on and off the athletics circuit, “and he probably thought I was a nutter.”
Other stories involve characters from the period such as the promoter Andy Norman, Zola Budd and infamous sprinter Ben Johnson, all of whom he got on well with.
Sharpe comes across as a self-confessed “daft lad” but also a happy-go-lucky, warm, thoughtful and likeable character. He was of course a fine runner, too.
Despite not making the Olympics – which is something he doesn’t regret incidentally – he won the world junior title in 1986, European indoor crown in 1988 and World Cup in 1992 – with his best time being 1:43.98.
“Even though my career lasted only 10 years or so,” he says, “I’m absolutely over the moon with my achievements, the times I ran and the races I won. I found out recently that some of my junior records – which were set over 35 years ago – still stand today.”
The book is an easy, fun read and brilliantly put together by Gardner. There are few errors or typos either apart from some deliberate Geordie colloquialisms, which add to its charm.
It’s not all about athletics either. “I can remember funny stories about motorbikes, cars, charity boxing, skiing, birdwatching and getting into scrapes like it was yesterday,” Sharpe admits, “but, when it comes to athletics details, I cannot remember a bliddy thing.
“All the same, almost everything that I’m proud of is athletics-related, even though my career lasted only 10 years or so. I’m absolutely over the moon with my achievements, the times I ran and the races I won. I found out recently that some of my junior records – which were set over 35 years ago – still stand today. Others were broken only in the past year or two.
“I was a young kid from a humble background in Jarrow who became World Junior champion, European Indoor champion and silver medallist outdoors, World Cup winner, and ran 1:43. You’d be mad not to be proud of all that.”
He adds: “Athletics put me on the road to learning the values of life and positive morals. I’ve often wondered whether, without athletics, I might have gone down a different road. When you get into a routine of training hard towards a goal, it makes you disciplined.
“I’m almost sure that if from an early age you can get yourself to the same place for training on the same day of the week and at the same time, week in, week out, you’ll learn a lot about yourself. I’m sure athletics has made me a better person.”
Sharpe’s memoir is highly recommended, especially if you have a soft spot for middle-distance running in the 1980s and 1990s.
» David Sharpe’s life story is published by Pitch Publishing for £16.99
» A version of this article first appeared in the February issue of AW magazine