A cold drizzle had begun to fall, raising umbrellas and rain hoods in the stands at London's Crystal Palace. Some 12,000 Britons had come out on the first Wednesday in June to watch 18-year-old Zola Budd's 3,000-meter Olympic trial, and the announcement of her name drew loud, heartfelt applause—followed by some derisive whistles. Police moved in along the base of the stands, expecting trouble.
Budd stood at the starting line with 16 other runners, barefoot and fawnlike, waiting. A shy, tiny girl, she had seen the Page One headlines in Wednesday's London Standard—ZOLA REPRISAL BY GLC; CONDEMN APARTHEID OR WE'LL CUT OFF SPORTS CASH, ATHLETE TOLD—which alluded to the Greater London Council's threat to withdraw nearly $1 million of funding for the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre if she ran Wednesday's race without first denouncing the racist policies of her native South Africa. The threat had hurt and upset her. Six times since moving to England on March 23 she had been entered in races, and on every occasion she had faced either miserable weather, poor track conditions or political harassment. Now she was 7 for 7. "I just wish the politicians would let me get on with my running," she had said earlier that day, almost pleading.
But politics had engulfed her. Here in Crystal Palace in late April, she had run a race wet with tears as protesters held up NO TO ZOLA BUDD banners and shouted, "Go home, you white South African trash!" Britain's Labor Party, fervently opposed to apartheid, had fought Budd with similar fervor through its control of the GLC and other legislative bodies: One, the town council of Crawley, Sussex, had pressured her to withdraw from a 1,500-meter race there in mid-April.
The battle had raged, too, in London's daily press. The Sun, a supporter of Budd, called GLC recreation committee chairman Peter Pitt a "puffed-up little prig" for threatening her. The Daily Mail, which had arranged and funded Budd's emigration to England in return for exclusive access to her, said of the anti-Budd Laborites, "What a sanctimonious bunch of pathetic creeps they are." Meanwhile, the rival Daily Express assailed the "¬£200,000 merchants from the Daily Mail"—a reference to the sum the Mail had placed in Budd's British Amateur Athletic Board trust fund (the Mail says the amount is closer to $30,000) and ran a story with the headline ZOLA: HOW THE CYNICAL MANIPULATORS HAVE TURNED HER INTO A CIRCUS ACT.
June 17, 1984
Throughout the uproar, Budd and her parents, Frank and Tossie, remained in relative seclusion, first at the home of a Daily Mail staffer in Bramshaw, 68 miles southwest of London at the edge of the New Forest, and recently in a rented house of their own 27 miles southwest of London in Guildford. Their sudden and secretive flight from their former home outside Bloemfontein three months ago (SI, April 9) had been a gamble on behalf of Zola's running career, which included a world-record timing of 15:01.83—not officially recognized—for the 5,000 meters in January. Friends, family and possessions had been left behind in the hope that Zola might be able to obtain British citizenship—and with it the international and Olympic eligibility denied her as a South African.
As it turned out, Budd's appeal for British citizenship—based on the fact that her grandfather was born in London—had been granted with extraordinary dispatch. She became a citizen on April 6, just 12 days after arriving in England. Merely by applying for citizenship she had met International Amateur Athletic Federation eligibility requirements. A subsequent study of her case by the British Olympic Association found her so obviously eligible for the Los Angeles Games that the BOA chose to not even present the issue to the International Olympic Committee, which had no objections of its own. To be safe, Budd voluntarily mailed her South African passport and identity document back to Pretoria in May, and early last week the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa (the group that had led the 26-nation African boycott of the 1976 Games in Montreal) announced that Budd's presence in L.A. would not initiate another boycott. Now, to gain a certain berth on the British Olympic team, all Budd had to do was win Wednesday's race.
Her performances since coming to England had been superb despite the conditions: four wins in four track races on British soil; a world junior record in the 1,500 meters (4:04.39—2.58 seconds slower than her personal best); and a gutty third-place finish in a 10-km road race in Oslo. In three of her five races she had worn shoes because of paved, cinder or rain-slickened surfaces. At the U.K. Championship in Cwbryn, Wales on May 28, her first major meet, she had almost put spikes on—though she prefers to run barefoot—because she feared the other runners would laugh at her. After that road race, in which Budd dueled with Ingrid Kristiansen and Grete Waitz for all but the last mile of a steeply hilly course, Waitz had said bluntly, "She's the greatest prospect I've ever seen."
As she lined up for Wednesday's 3,000, however, Budd was suddenly beset. A tiny knot of anti-apartheid protesters rose from their seats just above her and began screaming and waving banners. Worse, the 5'2", 84-pound Budd found herself shouldered out at the line by two larger rivals. Her face filled with panic.
To her relief, the runners were led up from the starting line, while police swarmed into the stands to eject the demonstrators. When the competitors were recalled, Budd elbowed through to a clear spot on the starting line, front and center. She learns fast.
At 300 meters she was free of the pack, flowing, her elbows splayed wide in curiously awkward fashion. Her lead grew with every lap, as did the crowd's ovation. The British nation, for the most part, has come to embrace Budd: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called protests against the tiny runner "utterly appalling"; Olympic sprint champion Allan Wells quietly arranged for her to work out at the private track where he trained. Veteran British 10,000-meter runner Julian Goater has begun training with her twice a week. According to the Daily Mail, when Budd went to visit the London home where her grandfather had lived, the present owner recognized her, saying, "Blimey, you're famous, you are. I saw you on the telly."
Britons know Budd as a fighter on the track, yet sense how shy and vulnerable she is off it. Happiest when left alone or with the kitten and budgie she has acquired, she has no agent or shoe contract, and has already turned down several big-money offers to race in the U.S., perhaps against Mary Decker. Hers is a family of hardworking, practical people, one not at all impressed by flash, cash and glitter. The story has spread of agent Mark McCormack's effort to sign her up for his International Management Group (He already handles such stars as Decker and Alberto Salazar), of his inviting Frank Budd to a palatial hotel suite and pouring on the charm. And of Frank Budd leaving, shaking his head, saying only, "They changed the ice bucket four times—and no one used any ice."
When Budd crossed the Crystal Palace line in 8:40.22, a European junior record, more than 12 seconds ahead of runner-up Angela Tooby, it was her turn to be led. An official took her hand. "Let's go over to the track and wave to the crowd," he told her. Uneasily, she went. Next she was delivered to the press for a promised conference. She sat down, silent and nervous. She looked 13, and her voice was scarcely audible. Her South African coach, Pieter Labuschagne, a bear of a man, knelt beside her.
Budd's answers were short. No, she wouldn't try to make the British team at 1,500 meters. Yes, she was happy. Of the GLC's threat, which would still be hanging at week's end, she whispered, "If they want me to make a statement, they must first have a track race with me." Few heard the words. Her lips barely moved.
After some routine questions about the race, a British reporter asked her if, politics aside, she would rather be running for South Africa in the Olympics than for Britain. Budd is still adored in South Africa, and perhaps always will be. Tense, she didn't answer. "Would you rather be running for the country of your birth?" the reporter persisted. Budd was becoming frightened and confused. Tears were welling up. She turned to Labuschagne, almost trembling. He rose.
"I think she has had enough," he said. And with that, Britain's newest Olympian was off.