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Revisiting Zola Budd versus Mary Decker, 1984 Olympics

first_imgCD AndersonOlympians South African Zola Budd and American Mary Decker recentlyreunited for a new documentary that revisits their contentious on-track meetingduring the 3 000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The hotlycontested and much-hyped race provided one of the more controversial moments inmodern 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-upAn extraordinary media-frenzy surrounded the two athletes and their uniquecircumstances in the run-up to the race.Budd was a reticent 18-year-old Bloemfontein-born middle-distance runningphenomenon. Unlike other athletes, she trained and raced barefoot. South Africawas excluded from international sports and competing in the Olympics because ofits 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 recordwith a time of 15:01.83. But the race was in South Africa and the InternationalAmateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) refused to ratify her time as an official worldrecord. The following year – after the ill-fated Olympics – representing Britain, sheclaimed the world record officially with a time of 14:48.07.Decker was seven years older than Budd, an all-American sporting celebrity formost of her life and a multiple world record holder. But she had missed out on threeprevious 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, broughton in part by the negative media coverage surrounding her at the time.As a white South African eager to compete internationally, she had alreadyexperienced ridicule and criticism during her burgeoning career, amplified by theattempts 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 herhome country.Criticised by the apartheid government and the various mouthpieces of thethen-banned and exiled liberation movements, Budd was a world-class athleteseemingly without a country to rally behind her.Self-described as just a simple girl from the Free State, Budd now confessesthe 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 couldcompete 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 aworldwide audience of millions, Budd and Decker lined up to start the race, eachnot knowing much about the other, apart from what had been said in the mediacoverage leading up to the race. More importantly, both runners knew that the otherstood in their way to Olympic glory.The raceWhile Decker and Budd received most of the media attention before the race,both runners were not outright favourites to win the 3 000m. RomanianMaricica Puică and the UK’s Wendy Smith-Sly were responsible for the distance’sbest times in the year leading up to the race.Decker, however, began the race in the lead, setting a rapid, urgent pace forthe rest of the field. By the midway point, Budd had gained the lead and led a packof 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 prodigiousrunning talents had resulted in their regularly leading races alone, well ahead of therest of the field.Shortly after the halfway point in the race, the first collision occurred, withDecker making contact with Budd’s legs. Less than five strides later, there was asecond collision, and Budd brushed her striding (bare) foot against Decker’s frontupper thigh. Budd lost her balance for a moment, realigning herself directly in frontof Decker, whose running spikes “inadvertently” grazed Budd’s ankle, drawingblood.Decker lost her balance and fell off the track on to the infield, but not beforegrasping and ripping off Budd’s race number. Decker was out of the race and Buddcontinued. Despite holding on to the lead, the tussle severely altered Budd’s paceand mind-set, causing her to quickly fall back to seventh place by the end of therace.Mary Decker after her fall during the final of the 3 000m race in the 1984Olympic Games. (Photo: Bettman Archive) pic.twitter.com/SMLOENDPSz—CD Anderson (@bizarrojerri) August 12,2016Years later, writing about the race in her autobiography, Budd admitted that shepurposely slowed down to placate an increasingly hostile crowd seeing their nationalheroine, Decker, out of the race and on the ground in tears. Puică won gold, withSmith-Sly finishing second.But all eyes were on Budd and Decker at the end of the race. Budd shylywalked 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 Deckerimmediately off the track and away from the cameras, but was countered byDecker with the now infamous retort: “Don’t bother.”In the direct aftermath of the race, an IAAF/Olympic investigation into theincident found that neither Budd nor Decker had shown undue malice or culpabilityin causing the collision. It was decided outright that the cause of the clash was bothathletes’ relative discomfort and inexperience in pack-running. Years later, Budd andDecker agree, although for Budd, the overwhelming public and media interest in therun-up to the race may have added an extra psychological barrier to how sheapproached the race.Mary Decker falls to the track as Zola Budd leads the final of thewomen’s 3,000m race in the 1984 Olympic Games. pic.twitter.com/GgyaM0vQOZ—CD Anderson (@bizarrojerri) August 12,2016The aftermath and reunionSeeing each other again, 32 years after the race, during interviews for thedocumentary, Budd and Decker discovered that they had more in common than theyrealised. Both had never watched a replay of the controversial race, preferring toremember it as they had experienced it.Zola Budd and Mary Decker at LA Coliseum 32 years after their race atthe 1984 Olympic Games (Photo: Hillside Prod.) pic.twitter.com/RH31av2RPL— CDAnderson (@bizarrojerri) August 15,2016They also agreed that the hype and circumstances created by the media at thetime put too much emotional stress on the occasion and the runners. Budd, inparticular, felt the undue pressure on her to run and balance the overwhelmingpolitical game surrounding her would have made her think twice about running therace if she had to choose today.Decker felt that the media painting her as temperamental and overly emotionalafter 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 itwas by no means their lasting legacy.Both continued to compete after 1984, even meeting on the track one final timein 1985 during an IAAF competition in England – Decker won the race and Buddfinished fourth.Budd went on to win the world cross country title twice and set world recordsfor the 2 000m and 5 000m. She also holds the standing British andSouth African records for the competition mile.She also competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, this time representingSouth Africa, before retiring from competition in 1994. Budd also ran the Comradesfor the first time in 2012, finishing 37th. She continues to train and nurtureupcoming talent in the US and South xAfrica.Decker went on to set more than 15 world records, as well as Americanrecords 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 taxiThe‘Zola Budd’ Hi-Ace minibus taxi, named after the famous South Africanathlete. (Photo: Toyota) pic.twitter.com/El1HVgBDUi— CDAnderson (@bizarrojerri) August 12,2016As for a more lasting cultural legacy, just ask any seasoned minibus taxi driverin South Africa, who will tell you that the ubiquitous “Zola Budd” Toyota Hi-Ace taxiis 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 AndersonWould you like to use this article in your publication or on your website?See: Using SouthAfrica.info materiallast_img read more