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A Flight To A Stormy Haven

April 09, 1984
April 09, 1984

Table of Contents
April 9, 1984

NCAA Finals
Zola Budd
Andrea Jaeger
College Basketball
Golf
Horse Racing
Swimming
Boxing
Motor Sports
Chick Hearn
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Flight To A Stormy Haven

Teenage running prodigy Zola Budd forsook South Africa for England and a chance at the 1984 Olympics

The girl, running barefoot as usual, was already far ahead in her 5,000-meter race on the pink Tartan of Stellenbosch University's Coetzenburg Stadium, near Cape Town, South Africa. Then the January night wind came down from the Stellenbosch Mountains, flapping marker flags and buffeting hoardings. Distance runners hate the wind. It never helps when it's behind as much as it hinders and infuriates when it's ahead. But the girl, Zola Budd, simply set her frown of concentration more firmly and kept on. She is 17, but so slender at 5'2" and 84 pounds, so floppy in the motion of her arms, that she seemed years younger. Yet somehow she wasn't slowing.

This is an article from the April 9, 1984 issue Original Layout

Lap after lap she ran, each in a metronomic 72 seconds. By the last mile it had come to seem that her very thinness, which at first suggested frailty, was what was letting her split the wind; her sharp elbows were carving a passage. She barely slowed, and when she was done, her time was 15:01.83, nearly seven seconds faster than Mary Decker's world record, run in 1982.

The significance of Zola Budd's race on Jan. 5, 1984, comes into the mind in layer after layer. First, and most forcefully, it means that here is a prodigy even among prodigies. She is six years younger than was Decker when she set the record. Last summer, at 24, Decker won the World Championship 1,500 meters in 4:00.9 (her American record is 3:57.12). Two weeks ago in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Budd ran 4:01.81, the fastest ever by a junior (19 and under) by 4.21. Decker was 21 before she ran that fast.

Second, because South Africans have been ostracized since 1976 by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the ruling body for track and field, because of their country's apartheid policy of racial separation and white minority rule, Zola Budd's record will not be officially recognized. This, plus the fact that South Africa has been banned from the Olympics since 1960, is what forced Zola Budd and her family to fly to England two weeks ago, the home of her paternal grandfather, there to seek citizenship and the eventual right to take part, for Britain, in the Los Angeles Olympics.

The abrupt move was surprising to many, because Budd's father, Frank, had said repeatedly that no decision in regard to a change in citizenship would be taken until after the Olympics, and because Zola Budd doesn't yet choose to converse a great deal in English. She is an Afrikaner, from Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. Her father was born there, the son of an immigrant British printer, but Frank Budd was raised, unavoidably, in an Afrikaans environment, and he brought up his children in one as well. That is important to an understanding of the life that shaped Zola Budd on the way to her record, and to the nature of her choice following it.

The Orange Free State was settled mainly by emigrant Boers, the stubborn, religious farmers of Dutch ancestry who trekked north in the 1830s (hence the proud Afrikaans word Voortrekker) to escape the unpopular British administration of the Cape Province. The Orange Free State became an independent Afrikaans republic in 1854, and joined with rebellious Boers from the Transvaal and elsewhere to fight two bitter wars against the British. Known to the rest of the world as the Boer War, they are called to this day "The Wars of Independence" by many Afrikaners.

In 1910, the Orange Free State joined the Union of South Africa, formed as a self-governing part of the British Empire. In 1961, under strong censure from the British Commonwealth because of its racial policies, South Africa broke away and declared itself an independent republic. The descendants of the Voortrekkers rejoiced. They felt their beliefs had been preserved.

Those beliefs are maintained in the Dutch Reform Church, the mother church of the Afrikaners, who are in the majority in the white administration and the public service. The Afrikaners' church and people traditionally, politically and emotionally endorse apartheid. For three centuries the church has cited Old Testament references to support the concept of the separation of the races.

The Budd family members are all communicants in the Dutch Reform Church. The children went to segregated Afrikaans schools. The apartheid laws that control residential and social mixing limited Zola Budd's contact with black Africans to the family's domestic servants and laborers on the Budd farm.

But Frank Budd, the son of an Englishman, is not the classic, intransigent Boer. When, 35 years ago, he courted Hendrina Wilhelmina de Swardt, known as Tossie, a Bloemfontein Afrikaner farmer's daughter, it created no small scandal. But they married, his printing company prospered, and they had six children, two of whom have died.

The delivery of their youngest child was the hardest. Tossie Budd was 38 then, and it was a protracted, grim, wrenching birth. Tossie was in and out of the operating theater for three days. She had to have 13 pints of blood by transfusion. The baby was tiny, pale and thin. This, because Frank wanted to give at least one of his children a name beginning with Z, was Zola Budd.

"The nurses told me the kid's a stayer," says Frank Budd now. "For a while we didn't think she'd survive. But the little bugger pulled through. She had to be tough just to get born, and she's been tough ever since." Had she been a boy, she would have needed to be. Frank would have named her Zero.

The family extended special care to Zola. "She was always a quiet, withdrawn child," says Frank. She stayed small. But she could run. She could always run. When she was 10 and 11, with huge, gold-rimmed spectacles that gave her symmetrical, solemn face a look of Victorian severity—Zola now wears contacts in competition—she ran 100-and 150-meter races on the grass track at her junior high.

When she won a 1,200-meter race by 400 meters, a three-lap race by an entire lap, Frank Budd was so impressed he was filled with a sense of responsibility. He decided to find a coach. He asked Pieter Labuschagne, a history teacher and volunteer coach at Sentraal Hoerskool in Bloemfontein, to take a look at her.

"She didn't smile much, or joke with the other kids," says Labuschagne, now 31. "When she began to run, she took on that great frown of concentration from start to finish. Her determination came across like an army of safari ants on the march. She was the most dedicated runner I had ever seen." Zola was then 11.

Labuschagne, who had been a serviceable runner himself, developed a system of training for Zola largely adopted from the ideas of New Zealand's Arthur Lydiard, who had coached Peter Snell, the former world mile record holder and the 1964 Olympic champion in the 800 and 1,500. She would run comfortable mileage, gradually accumulating an endurance foundation upon which a peak of racing speed could be built.

In this she was wonderfully fortunate. Decker, by contrast, was thrown at an early age into hard interval and speed training, voluminous racing. That resulted in promising marks followed by a host of injuries.

Labuschagne tempered Zola's driving urge to run just enough to keep her healthy. But she has a rich endowment of Afrikaner will. Zola had always run barefoot, like many South African youngsters, though she acquiesced in the wearing of shoes for long runs on the roads. When Labuschagne got her some spikes for the track, "she tried them and threw them away in disgust." He didn't see it as an issue. "I figured she must run in the way she feels most comfortable. There's nothing especially strong about her feet, or in the way she places them on the track. I suppose that she is so light that her weight doesn't put any strain on her feet."

Through junior high and high school she ran, shredding age-group records. At home, on the Budd farm, she had an idyllic childhood among ostriches, rabbits, cats and dogs in the yard, tropical fish and a parrot that swears in South Sotho—an African language of the region—in the house. Her bedroom is full of dolls and stuffed animals. A photograph of Decker is pasted above her bed.

With her training companions Zola is quietly direct, but in the presence of strangers she turns painfully shy. The growing acclaim for her running didn't exactly ameliorate this. She is exceedingly bright and got several distinctions on her university entrance exams. Before her flight to England, she had begun to study at the University of the Orange Free State, in political science, history and the South Sotho language, envisaging a career in international diplomacy. But because English is her second language, she tends to listen to English conversations rather than join them. When interviewers called, she usually would have Labuschagne translate.

Told recently that the pressures of burgeoning fame were almost unavoidable, she responded with an uncomfortable smile and a whisper to Labuschagne. "I know that I'm going to have to face up to it," he translated. "But I'll do it in my own time, thank you."

One of Zola's favorite times was 5:30 a.m., an hour when she usually drove with her father into Bloemfontein from the Budd small holding about 13 miles away. They would meet Labuschagne and some of her school friends. The coach would get in the car with Frank. Zola and her pals would run a 7½-mile circuit that took them over Bloemfontein's Naval Hill, where ostrich, impala and springbok stared at them in the dawn from the city's game park, and then through the suburbs where Zola grew up before they moved farther out. Bloemfontein is in high country, 4,568 feet, and those mornings were crisp and cold.

Then in the late afternoons, after the heat of the day, Zola would return to her high school playing fields for pace work with Labuschagne. "It all seems so casual," said an observer earlier this year. "This elfin schoolgirl in her blue satin shorts and running shoes that look too big for her feet, going about the business of being the best in the world. But there are no exhortations to push harder or go faster. She runs. He times her and makes a note in his school exercise book." The unconscious effect is to recall the adjectives traditionally applied to Voortrekkers: purposeful, stolid, remorseless.

Zola has never had to make tactical decisions such as choosing a moment to kick because there has never been anyone to kick against. "We just plan an average lap time," says Labuschagne. "She begins at that pace, and if the conditions are right, she'll begin taking seconds off the average." Zola's sense of pace has convinced Labuschagne that she'll mature into a fine marathoner. "Before she's 24, she'll be doing a marathon in 2:22." Joan Benoit's world record is 2:22:43.

But for now she runs the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000, and until now she has raced only herself, been driven only by herself. And if you are honest, this is the most remorseless opponent of all. In February, again at Stellenbosch, again with the wind opposing her, she tried for the 3,000 women's world record of Svyetlana Ulmasova (8:26.78) of the Soviet Union. That night the wind rose to ridiculous strength. She was not close. And afterward she was inconsolable.

As photographers paced and growled outside, Zola sat hunched in a corner of the stadium offices, like a frightened fawn. Labuschagne talked to her quietly, steadily, bringing her out of her withdrawal. "She's very vulnerable after a race that hasn't gone well for her," he-says. "I tell her there's always another day, that she'll get another chance, that she's not a failure." If a true perfectionist is measured by how crushing even his or her perceived failure can be, Zola Budd is an esteemed member of the club. One wishes for her always to have loving, soothing people around.

With the records and the press came the incessant asking of The Question: What would she do to get international competition? She had a precedent in Sydney Maree, the black South African middle-distance runner who accepted a scholarship at Villanova, stayed in the U.S. and obtained citizenship. Zola had no lack of U.S. scholarship offers. But for a time she held off. She wasn't ready yet. The need wasn't that great yet. "Sometimes I feel it might be necessary to go overseas," she told the Los Angeles Times, "but I won't leave permanently. If I had to choose between running and staying, I'd probably stay." That was said in January.

Except in rare cases South African law forces anyone acquiring citizenship in another nation to forfeit South African nationality forever. In effect, it says choose; run elsewhere or stay here. It was true that Frank Budd's father was born in Hackney, London. Frank was therefore entitled to a British passport. British Home Office officials said last week they would view Zola's application for citizenship "with sympathy." British national Coach Frank Dick was gleeful over the prospect of her wearing the British rose in Los Angeles. But Zola Budd still had to choose.

Because Frank Budd is fiercely protective, it had to be a family decision. Labuschagne advocated no one course of action, but he made it clear that he felt no animosity toward Maree for gaining American citizenship to advance his running career. "I just want the best for her," he said last month. "My job is to bring her to her best performing peak."

It was natural, early in this process, for Frank Budd to rage against the sporting world's treatment of South Africa. "Zola hasn't done anything wrong," he said. "Why should she be penalized like this? Half the people who shut her off from the world think that there are lions and tigers roaming the streets here. What do they know of our life? What do they know how we and Zola feel about it? And do they care?"

If the international interest in Zola's plight is any indication, they care. Bill McChesney Sr., the U.S. Masters record holder in the mile for the 55-59 age group, seemed to speak for most when he cried out, "What difference does it make where she's from? Let her run. She can't help where she was born. It's always the individuals who suffer, not the institutions that make the rules." That seemed to describe the essential pain of the Olympic boycott of 1980, in which McChesney's son, also Bill, had qualified in the 5,000. And even the pain of apartheid.

Frank Budd was correct that no one knows how Zola feels about all of this. He has always shielded her from questions about apartheid. "What does a 17-year-old kid know about that," he has said. "You can't expect her to answer questions like that. She's not ready." He may well be right. She has only seen it from the privileged, state-indoctrinated, church-supported side. One observer saw in her aspiration to diplomatic service a profound innocence, saying, "Lord, South Africa's diplomatic corps must be among the most unpopular in the world."

"I'm not very good at politics," continued Frank Budd. "I do believe that you have to have strong opposition to whatever government is in power. They must not have everything their own way. But I don't think there is a situation like ours anywhere else in the world: a country run by whites while the blacks are in the majority, and yet the majority of blacks haven't got it in them to run the country. Not yet, anyway." A majority of white South Africans might disagree with Frank. They might say not ever. And until political rights are granted to South African blacks, there is small chance that its suspension from international sports events will be lifted.

That is hard for some white South Africans to endure. Frank Budd says there was no official pressure on him or Zola to stay, but even close friends were inclined to say, "Don't do it, Frank. Think of South Africa." One woman told him, "You must just hang on until the political situation eases and then Zola will be able to run internationally for South Africa."

"And if the situation doesn't change? What then?" he answered. She was mute.

Ultimately, Frank and Zola and Tossie made their choice.

Six weeks ago Frank Budd applied for a British passport. On Friday, March 23, Zola and her parents drove to Jan Smuts international airport in Johannesburg. Their passage to England had been arranged by London's Daily Mail, which has a circulation of two million. The Budds were escorted to an empty VIP lounge in the airport to await KLM flight 594 to Nairobi and Amsterdam. Ten minutes before their 747 was scheduled to depart, a black Mercedes carried the three Budds to the loading ramp for the 11½-hour flight to Amsterdam. There they were met by a small private plane and were flown to Southampton. Since then, the Daily Mail, which has exclusive rights to Zola Budd's personal story, has kept the family under wraps. Last Friday, Labuschagne joined the Budds in England. At once the world weighed in. The Daily Express, the Mail's closest rival, ran a banner headline on page one screeching ZOLA GO HOME!, justifying it with comments from two British women middle-distance runners to the effect that the importation of a competitor for a place on the British Olympic team was unfair. Other stories speculated that the International Management Group, a Cleveland-based agency headed by Mark McCormack, was behind the flight from South Africa and was intent on staging a series of lucrative head-to-head races between Budd and its client Decker. Lending some substance to this theorizing, Hughes Norton of IMG admitted Sunday that his organization was in daily contact with the Budds, although the ferrets of Fleet Street had yet to discover where the Daily Mail had hidden the family.

The International Olympic Committee let it be known that it reserved the right to decide if Zola's participation in L.A. was "in the interests of the Olympic movement."

A spokesman cited a bylaw to Rule 8 of the Olympic Charter, which states "...a naturalised competitor...may not participate in the Olympic Games to represent his new country until three years after his naturalisation." However, the bylaw goes on to say, "The period following naturalisation may be reduced or even canceled with the agreement of the National Olympic Committee and International Federations concerned and the final approval of the IOC executive board."

There were those prepared to argue that Zola's decision would not be in the interests of the Olympic movement. "She hasn't come here because she disapproves of the system in South Africa," said Barnie Mokgatoe, a London-based spokesman of the South African Youth Revolutionary Council, "but because she wants to run in the Olympics. Some African states may not take kindly to that situation."

While sides were being chosen in England, in South Africa there was an aura of resignation. In a telephone poll conducted by the Johannesburg Star, of 100 calls received in an hour, 97 were sympathetic to Zola. And she is hardly alone in seeking meaningful international competition by the only means available to South African track and field athletes. Besides Maree, former South Africans who hope to compete in the L.A. Games include steeplechaser John DaSilva, who will compete for Portugal; middle-distance runners Cornelia Buerki (Switzerland), Mark Handelsman (Israel) and Mathews Moshwerateu (Botswana); javelin thrower Koos van der Merwe (West Germany); and distance runner Vincent Rakabaele (Lesotho).

Amid all the cacophony, it seemed that one's enduring wish for this slender, driven girl—that she be among friends, soothing friends—was as far away as the end of the earth, back down where the evening wind blows over the Stellenbosch Mountains.

FIVE PHOTOSILLUSTRATIONPHOTOZola's bedroom was stuffed with buddies.PHOTOLabuschagne followed the Budd clan to Great Britain.TWO PHOTOSZola, 17, who "broke" Decker's 5,000 record, has had no competition in South Africa.PHOTOBefore departing for England, Tossie, Zola and Frank Budd posed with their servants.PHOTOZola had to leave her puppies, as well as her other pets.