Young barefoot South African runner Zola Budd was given a lifeline to compete in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics 5000 metres against her hero and race favourite American Mary Decker. But her dream of running the race of her life ended in acrimony and accusation.
Who says that sport and politics don’t mix? On the greatest stage it is a heady brew that adds to the built up and the drama. In 1984, South Africa were barred from international athletics competition because of opposition to apartheid and a generation of the nation’s most talented athletes missed to chance to test themselves against the best.
Not so a 17-year-old barefoot runner from Bloemfontein, Zola Budd who exploded onto the scene in January 1984 when she bested the world record in the 5000 metres then held by American Mary Decker. In probably the darkest time for South African sports it seemed as if the world would never have the chance to see her realise her potential on the greatest stage of all.
Her case was taken up by Fleet Street, and the Daily Mail started a crusade to get Budd a British passport so she could fly the Union Jack at the games in Los Angeles. It all made great copy and a coup for the newspaper, but the decision to fast track British citizenship to the young girl was received with cries of outrage by the anti-apartheid movement in England. Protestors camped outside her home and questions were raised in the House of Commons.
For all the political protestations Zola continued to run. Her slight frame, child-like appearance, barefoot running and unorthodox running style enthralled the public at large and her times were good enough to ensure that she would be challenging for a medal at the Olympics.
At the Olympic Games in Los Angeles she was joined in the 3000m final by the world’s best Mary Decker, Romanian Maricica Puica and British number one Wendy Sly and from the start she held her own. Decker came to the fore with a determined Budd snapping at her heels for the first three laps. In the fourth lap Zola took the lead on the inside track ahead of the American as the leaders began to break away from the chasing pack. Decker upped her pace to keep up and in doing so tripped over the South African crashing out of the race injured.
Zola continued to run amidst a chorus of boos and was in the running for a top three finish, but faded badly in the last lap finishing seventh. Budd later claimed that she deliberately slowed down as she couldn’t face accepting a medal after what had happened. The commentators at the time put the calamity down to the South African’s inexperience at the highest level and the crowd agreed, unhappy to see the American golden girl of athletics denied so cruelly. However gold medallist Puica and silver winner Sly supported the South African, generally it is the chasing runner who has the responsibility in this situation.
Watch the race here (the incident occurs at 5.12):
Decker didn’t see it that way and accused Budd of deliberately tripping her, the Olympic officials were in some confusion and disqualified her but later reinstated her absolving her of any wrong-doing. After the Olympic,s Budd returned to Britain but she had received so many death threats that she had to be met at the airport by armed guard. She fled immediately to South Africa but returned some time later to continue running.
What should have been her golden moment had descended into disaster. She continued running and made the team for the Seoul Olympics but illness thwarted her efforts. The whole ordeal of the 1984 Olympics had taken it’s toll on her personal life and after two years in Britain her parent’s marriage had hit the rocks and her relationship with her father had foundered never to be repaired.
In 1988 a ban was placed on her again when she attended an athletics event in South Africa, she always claimed that she had only attended and not competed. She fought the ban for a while but eventually, dejected, announced her retirement. She did return to the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona and competed as a South African but illness thwarted her tournament. She continues to run today but now only for herself and with the weight of world politics off her shoulders the little barefoot runner form Bloemfontein finds in running the peace that drew her to the sport in the first place.
She told TIME Magazine: “Running is my therapy. I run for myself now. When I was younger, running was outcome-based and all that mattered was the result, the time, the medal. Now it doesn't matter what my time is, what the result is. I enjoy running, but it's on my own terms and it's a part of my life, not all of it.” She lives in the United States with her children, who also run, but will always consider South Africa her home.
by Hugo Mc Cafferty