Zola Budd: the barefoot flyer

Zola Budd became known to the athletics’ world and beyond in the early eighties when, as a barefooted teenager, she produced one incredible record-breaking performance after another in women’s middle distance running.

The shy, slightly-built Budd excelled in distances from the 1 500 metres to the 10 000 metres, but wasn’t able to compete internationally because of the apartheid policies of the South African government.

Budd took a drastic step to realise her ambition of competing in the Olympic Games when she applied for British citizenship on the grounds that she had a British grandfather. The Daily Mail newspaper pushed her case and her application for citizenship was rushed through, allowing her to qualify to represent Britain in the 3 000 metres in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Dramatic race

American athlete Mary Decker-Slaney was the favourite to win the title, with Budd and the Romanian Maricica Puica also considered to be in the running for the gold. The race turned out to be one of the most dramatic of the Los Angeles Games, or for that matter any Olympic Games.

The halfway point was reached without problem, but shortly afterwards, at the 1 700 metre mark, Budd and Decker-Slaney bumped each other but continued running. Only a few strides later the pair collided again. Decker-Slaney caught Budd’s right ankle with her spikes and went crashing down onto the inner field, clutching her right thigh.

Budd stumbled but recovered her balance and continued with the race, although it was obvious that she was upset by the incident and had lost her heart for the race. Decker-Slaney was carried from the side of the track in tears, while Budd went on to finish seventh, with Puica taking the gold medal.

Disqualified then reinstated

The South African-born Briton was disqualified but later reinstated. The damage had been done, however, with Budd cast in the role of the villain.

Budd said she went to apologise to Decker-Slaney after the race, but was told: “Don’t bother!” Years later, said Budd, Decker-Slaney said she had forgiven her, but Budd felt that the American still blamed her for the Los Angeles incident.

Budd continued to compete for Britain for a number of years, enjoying some success for her adopted country, with world cross-country titles in 1985 and 1986. She was also crowned European 3 000 metres champion in 1985 and set a world record of 14:48:07 in the 5 0000 metres. In 1986 she set a world indoor record in the 3 000 metres.

Commonwealth Games ban

Controversy continued to dog Budd, and she was banned from the Commonwealth games in 1986 because of it. In 1988 the disillusioned athlete returned to South Africa. Her best athletics’ years were behind her, and although she competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she never achieved the success she had previously enjoyed.

Budd remains the holder of numerous British and South African records, both at junior and senior levels. She married in 1989 and today is Zola Pieterse, mother of three children. Quizzed about her experience at the Olympics in 1984, Pieterse said recently: “It’s like reading a novel about a totally different person. I think, ‘That didnt happen to me?'”

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