One of the haunting memories of sport in one's childhood happened 26 years back on the day. Athletics was just entering in one's stream of sports consciousness as one had started training for the school Athletics team just around that time. Being in possession of a rather small and frail frame, an exotic and wildly exciting career in sprinting seemed impossible to pursue. But middle distance running seemed more suited and running bare footed on tracks was a daily chore.
Even in those days of restricted sports coverage in media one was made aware of this eagerly awaited clash between the then two best middle distance female atheletes in Los Angeles 1984. The 3000 m race was touted to be a two horse race between Zola Budd and Mary Decker.
One was happily ignorant about all the controversies surrounding Zola Budd. Apartheid as a concept was too complex for a young mind. And the political cynicism displayed by Britain in fast tracking her application for British citizenship was not grasped by the innocence of childhood. One was perfectly clear in where one's loyalties lay. Zola Budd!
What happened on this day almost 3 decades ago is still etched in one's mind. The jury is still out on who was to be faulted. And one has no insight to add to that episode. The accident changed the trajectories of 2 lives permanently. And the tragic failure in achieving Olympic glory after putting years of struggle, both physical and mental, was once again high lighted.
After another half lap, Mary Decker would begin a long, ever quickening drive to the finish. She had led the women's Olympic 3,000-meter final from the gun, first at world-record pace, then slowing a second or so every lap. The last had taken her 71 seconds, bringing the field past 1,600 meters in 4:36.
She had shaken no one. Zola Budd of Great Britain and Maricica Puic of Romania, her most heralded opponent and her most dangerous one, respectively, ran second and third.
Decker felt fine. Her sore right Achilles tendon, which had required a cortisone injection in July, was operating smoothly. Her semifinal win in 8:44.38 had been, as she put it, "Effortless. Except for Lynn Williams [of Canada] stepping on my heel four times."
"She was looking for about an 8:29 pace in the final," said her coach, *** Brown. (The world record is 8:26.78, by Syvetlana Ulmasova of the U.S.S.R., who, of course, wasn't in L.A..) "With a kilometer to go, she would begin picking it up." This was similar to the tactic Decker had used to win the world championship 3,000 last year in Helsinki, but there she had started her drive 600 meters out. In Los Angeles she planned to go the last 1,000 because she was stronger now, because Puic?, the current world cross-country champion and mile-record holder (4:17.44), would produce a respectable kick if it weren't run out of her, and because these were the Olympics.
Decker had never run in an Olympic race. In 1972 she was too young, only 14. In 1976 she was injured. In 1980 the Carter boycott stymied her. But these Games were her own, in the city where she'd grown up. "Finally it all seems so perfect," she'd said.
That last brutal kilometer would begin in about 300 meters, on the backstretch. Now, as Decker relaxed, gathering herself, the slight, pale, barefoot, 92-pound form of Budd again came even with her. Budd had been outside Decker's right shoulder almost from the start, and Decker knew it. They had bumped elbows at 500 meters, a result of Budd's wide-swinging arm action, and Decker had shot her a sharp look.
Budd had sensed the slowing pace and didn't like it. Her training and temperament combine to make her natural race one of constantly increasing pressure. She and her coach, Pieter Labuschagne, knew that she couldn't kick with a fresh Decker or Puic?. If she was to run her best in this Olympic final, the pace would have to go faster. So she passed Decker on the turn, just after 1,600 meters. Decker felt her uncomfortably close. "She was cutting in on the turn, without being near passing," Decker would say.
By the end of the turn, Budd appeared to have enough margin to cut in without interfering with Decker's stride, but instead she hung wide, on the outside of Lane 1, as they came into the stretch.
Decker was near the rail, a yard behind Budd. Budd's teammate, Wendy Sly, had come up to third, off Budd's shoulder, and Puic? was fourth, tucked in tight behind Decker, waiting.
Decker sensed Budd drifting to the inside. "She tried to cut in without being, basically, ahead," Decker would say. But Decker didn't do what a seasoned middle-distance runner would have done. She didn't reach out to Budd's shoulder to let her know she was there, too close behind for Budd to move to the pole.
Instead, Decker shortened her stride for a couple of steps. There was contact. Decker's right thigh grazed Budd's left foot. Budd took five more strides, slightly off balance. Trying to regain control, she swayed in slightly to the left. Decker's right foot struck Budd's left calf, low, just above the Achilles tendon. Budd's left leg shot out, and she was near falling.
But Decker was falling, tripped by that leg all askew. "To keep from pushing her, I fell," she would say. She reached out after Budd, inadvertently tearing the number from her back and went headlong across the rail onto the infield.
Decker's competitiveness is without limit. "My first thought was, 'I have to get up,' " she said. But when she tried, "It felt like I was tied to the ground." She had a pulled gluteus, the hip stabilizer muscle. Only then, understanding that she couldn't go on, with the field past and the medical attendants and her fiancee, Richard Slaney, running across the track to her, did the anguish come. Hers was the horrible realization that once again, in the race she'd been denied by injury and boycott for eight years, she was being denied any chance of a conclusion of her own making.
She who had been hurt so often, for whom the sensation of raw exhaustion is a joy compared with the misery of not being able to run, was hurt again, three laps from the end of overcoming all of that hurt. And as that crashed in on her, she lay writhing and screaming on the infield, her face hideously expressive of the wild rage of her reaction.
Budd, who had kept her feet, maintained the lead and increased the pace. Boos rained on her. She had tears coursing down her face, this woman-child perfectionist who already had gone through so much trauma simply to be here. She had left friends and farm and studies in South Africa to claim the citizenship that was hers because her father is of British descent. And in so doing, she had become the center of a storm of debate over whether these two things could be reconciled: prohibiting South Africa any place in international sport until apartheid is no more, and letting a slender, shy girl test the extent of her talent.
Decker and Budd were seared into Olympic history in the minutes that followed, the woman in agony on the ground and the frightened little deer running on, desperately trying to squeeze away the thought that it was all ruined, this race that she had overturned her pleasantly sheltered life for, trying just to run, to go her hardest, because that was what always worked, that was what she knew, that was what she was made to do.
But she had so little left. With a lap to go, Sly and Puic? were running away from her. Puic? then bolted out alone over the last 250 meters, winning in 8:35.96. Sly was second in 8:39.47, and Williams third in 8:42.14. Budd faded badly, crossing the line seventh in 8:48.80.
Slaney walked the limping, sobbing Decker across the track and then lifted her into his arms as they entered the tunnel. Budd found her way there a few moments later, desperately wanting to somehow make clear that she had intended none of this horror. She admired Decker enormously. Above her bed, back in the Afrikaans town of Bloemfoentein, she had kept a picture of her. In San Diego, before the Olympics, she had spoken of Decker, saying, "It would be wonderful to be so pretty."
Decker saw Budd coming. "Don't bother," she snarled, waving her off. Budd, mortified, was assisted by Britain's's Mary Peters, the 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion, to the medical area, to have her bleeding ankle bandaged. On the way back to the UCLA Olympic Village, British team manager Nick Whitehead sought to cheer her. "I just said that it was her first Olympics and she ought to be proud," he said. "All she said was, 'How's Mary?' "
By then, of course, a great cacophony had arisen over whose fault this wreck of a race was. An umpire seated along the track had signaled a foul, and referee Andy Bakjian disqualified Budd for obstructing Decker. The British team manager protested the disqualification, so the matter went to the jury of appeals.
Fifth-placer Cornelia B�rki of Switzerland, who was also born in South Africa, said, "When you're behind, you're the one to have to watch out. It was Mary's fault."
This doesn't mean that a leader can swerve in with impunity, but that in the give and take of pack running, athletes learn to make allowances. "You're supposed to be one stride ahead before you can cut in," said Eammon Coghlan of Ireland, the world indoor mile-record holder. "But this happens all the time. You have to protect yourself out there."
Neither Decker nor Budd has ever had much experience racing in the pack. Decker, though 26, can count on one hand the number of races in which she has had to maneuver in tight quarters. Her main concern with other runners on the track has been in lapping them. So she has never needed finely honed protective reflexes.
"Perhaps it was inexperience on Zola's part," said Coghlan. "Perhaps it was being too ladylike on Mary's part. You can't blame either one." The jury of appeals, after watching videotape from six angles, saw it that way, too. Budd was reinstated.
The last person Budd would ever want to hurt is Decker. The reverse may not be quite true, but the essential thing seemed not motive—"Mary doesn't feel that Zola did it intentionally," said Brown a day later—but the waste of all the preparation both had invested in this race.
At another level, both seemed to be getting punished for elements deep in their characters. Six years ago Decker said, "If it comes down to a choice between causing pain or taking it, I'll take it." That certainly seemed to be operating in the split second when she had to decide whether to push or fall.
And Budd, so shy, so much a symbol of the runner as one trying to flee, is now the one caught in yet another maelstrom.
But both picked themselves up. Rather than being dejected, Budd was said to be a little testy the next day. "She's not too happy with Mary's reaction," said British coach Frank ***. "It wasn't her fault. She knows that."
Decker went back to her hotel after a tearful press conference and lifted a glass with some friends. "Here's to Zurich," she said, naming the locale where she plans to race next, on Aug. 22. "And here's to Cologne and Paris [Aug. 26 and Sept. 4]...and here's to Seoul in '88."
There was a very nice article in The Guardian on Zola Budd 20 years down the line. For those interested, they can have a read here