Revisiting Zola Budd versus Mary Decker, 1984 Olympics

CD Anderson

Olympians South African Zola Budd and American Mary Decker recently
reunited for a new documentary that revisits their contentious on-track meeting
during the 3 000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The hotly
contested and much-hyped race provided one of the more controversial moments in
modern Olympic history.

The documentary, The Fall, by the UK’s Sky Atlantic channel, looks at the build-up to the race, the race itself and the after-effects of the incident in which Decker collided with Budd and gained both runners unprecedented global infamy.

The build-up

An extraordinary media-frenzy surrounded the two athletes and their unique
circumstances in the run-up to the race.

Budd was a reticent 18-year-old Bloemfontein-born middle-distance running

phenomenon. Unlike other athletes, she trained and raced barefoot. South Africa
was excluded from international sports and competing in the Olympics because of
its apartheid government, but Budd circumvented this by gaining British citizenship,
on the grounds that her grandfather was British.

At the age of 17, in 1984, she broke the women’s 5 000m world record
with a time of 15:01.83. But the race was in South Africa and the International
Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) refused to ratify her time as an official world
record. The following year – after the ill-fated Olympics – representing Britain, she
claimed the world record officially with a time of 14:48.07.

Decker was seven years older than Budd, an all-American sporting celebrity for
most of her life and a multiple world record holder. But she had missed out on three
previous Olympics before the Los Angeles Games.

In the documentary, Decker recalls the 1984 Games as her crowning moment as a competitor. “I (was) finally here, and had something to prove.”

Budd, on the other hand, was just trying fight off her own insecurities, brought
on in part by the negative media coverage surrounding her at the time.

As a white South African eager to compete internationally, she had already
experienced ridicule and criticism during her burgeoning career, amplified by the
attempts of her family and a British newspaper (with exclusive rights to her story)
to fast-track her British citizenship that would allow her to compete at the Games.
As an outsider, she found little love from the British public, and even less from her
home country.

Criticised by the apartheid government and the various mouthpieces of the
then-banned and exiled liberation movements, Budd was a world-class athlete
seemingly without a country to rally behind her.

Self-described as just a simple girl from the Free State, Budd now confesses
the moment might have been too big for her. “I felt like ‘What am I doing here? I
(wasn’t) supposed to be here.”

All she really wanted to do was run, if only to prove to herself that she could
compete with the best in the world no matter what flag she wore on her shirt.

In front of a vocal, partisan crowd at the Los Angeles Olympic Coliseum, and a
worldwide audience of millions, Budd and Decker lined up to start the race, each
not knowing much about the other, apart from what had been said in the media
coverage leading up to the race. More importantly, both runners knew that the other
stood in their way to Olympic glory.

The race

While Decker and Budd received most of the media attention before the race,
both runners were not outright favourites to win the 3 000m. Romanian
Maricica Puică and the UK’s Wendy Smith-Sly were responsible for the distance’s
best times in the year leading up to the race.

Decker, however, began the race in the lead, setting a rapid, urgent pace for
the rest of the field. By the midway point, Budd had gained the lead and led a pack
of Decker, Puică and Smith-Sly away from the rest of the also-rans.

It was a situation unfamiliar to Budd and Decker, both of whose prodigious
running talents had resulted in their regularly leading races alone, well ahead of the
rest of the field.

Shortly after the halfway point in the race, the first collision occurred, with
Decker making contact with Budd’s legs. Less than five strides later, there was a
second collision, and Budd brushed her striding (bare) foot against Decker’s front
upper thigh. Budd lost her balance for a moment, realigning herself directly in front
of Decker, whose running spikes “inadvertently” grazed Budd’s ankle, drawing
blood.

Decker lost her balance and fell off the track on to the infield, but not before
grasping and ripping off Budd’s race number. Decker was out of the race and Budd
continued. Despite holding on to the lead, the tussle severely altered Budd’s pace
and mind-set, causing her to quickly fall back to seventh place by the end of the
race.

Years later, writing about the race in her autobiography, Budd admitted that she
purposely slowed down to placate an increasingly hostile crowd seeing their national
heroine, Decker, out of the race and on the ground in tears. Puică won gold, with
Smith-Sly finishing second.

But all eyes were on Budd and Decker at the end of the race. Budd shyly
walked off the track and a distraught Decker was carried off by her trainer. Budd,
also in her autobiography, confirmed that she did attempt to speak to Decker
immediately off the track and away from the cameras, but was countered by
Decker with the now infamous retort: “Don’t bother.”

In the direct aftermath of the race, an IAAF/Olympic investigation into the
incident found that neither Budd nor Decker had shown undue malice or culpability
in causing the collision. It was decided outright that the cause of the clash was both
athletes’ relative discomfort and inexperience in pack-running. Years later, Budd and
Decker agree, although for Budd, the overwhelming public and media interest in the
run-up to the race may have added an extra psychological barrier to how she
approached the race.

The aftermath and reunion

Seeing each other again, 32 years after the race, during interviews for the
documentary, Budd and Decker discovered that they had more in common than they
realised. Both had never watched a replay of the controversial race, preferring to
remember it as they had experienced it.

They also agreed that the hype and circumstances created by the media at the
time put too much emotional stress on the occasion and the runners. Budd, in
particular, felt the undue pressure on her to run and balance the overwhelming
political game surrounding her would have made her think twice about running the
race if she had to choose today.

Decker felt that the media painting her as temperamental and overly emotional
after the race – to the point of nicknaming her “America’s cry baby” – was disingenuous. “I can’t say that my reactions were that horrible,” she said. “People need to put themselves in my place and in Zola’s place and think what (they) would have done.”

Los Angeles may have been what the two runners were most famous for, but it
was by no means their lasting legacy.

Both continued to compete after 1984, even meeting on the track one final time
in 1985 during an IAAF competition in England – Decker won the race and Budd
finished fourth.

Budd went on to win the world cross country title twice and set world records
for the 2 000m and 5 000m. She also holds the standing British and
South African records for the competition mile.

She also competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, this time representing
South Africa, before retiring from competition in 1994. Budd also ran the Comrades
for the first time in 2012, finishing 37th. She continues to train and nurture
upcoming talent in the US and South xAfrica.

Decker went on to set more than 15 world records, as well as American
records for the 800m, 10 000m, 3 000m and 1 500m. She never won that sought-after Olympic medal, despite competing in the 1988 Seoul Games. Following surgery to stave off the effects of arthritis, Decker retired to rural, family life in Oregon.

The Zola Budd taxi

As for a more lasting cultural legacy, just ask any seasoned minibus taxi driver
in South Africa, who will tell you that the ubiquitous “Zola Budd” Toyota Hi-Ace taxi
is often the fastest and most reliable, while a “Mary Decker” taxi is a broken down one.

This popular taxi slang even inspired a song by the late Brenda Fassie.

Source: Telegraph UK/Wikipedia

CD Anderson

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