All Mary Teresa Decker Tabb Slaney had to do was apologize. The public implored her: Please, Mary, just once say you're sorry. A simple statement of regret for having laid harsh words—and full blame—upon Britain's Zola Budd after their famous collision in the Olympic 3,000-meter final last August could have saved Decker from a fusillade of criticism: reprimands from fellow runners, censuring letters to the editor, spoof awards for being Whiner of the Year (USA Today) and The Year's Sorest Loser (Esquire). But Decker remained adamant. "I don't feel that I have any reason to apologize," she said before last Friday's Sunkist Invitational meet at the L.A. Sports Arena. "I was wronged, like anyone else in that situation."
The women's 2,000 meters at Sunkist was to be Decker's first race since she crashed to the infield as a result of the Olympic collision, suffering torn groin tissue and a painful hip-socket injury. Six weeks of healing and three months of steady training had put her in the best early-season shape of her indoor career, and her eyes were on the rather soft indoor world record of 5:43.30 set by Yekaterina Podkopayeva of the Soviet Union in 1983. Yet everyone else's attention seemed focused on Decker's sullied image. "I think it's time the press started telling the truth and not make up stories about me," snapped Decker, who added, "What really bothers me is that they portray me as being bitter. I'm not bitter at all. I know what Zola did was unintentional. You can tell. We tried to set up breakfast, lunch or dinner with her the next day—and nobody wrote about this—but they never responded."
Decker's market value has both fallen and soared because of the Budd controversy. According to a survey of more than a dozen track and road-racing promoters, her appearance fees actually have risen by about $3,000, into the $11,000-to-$13,000 range. "People just eat up this good-guy, bad-guy stuff," says a promoter who requests anonymity.
New York Marathon director Fred Lebow says he has been approached by "two U.S. television networks, some foreign TV people, two major corporations and a sports promotion firm" offering "six figures, big six figures," to bring together Decker and Budd in a road race. On the other hand, while Decker's endorsement contracts with Nike, Kodak and Timex, which are worth an estimated $300,000 per year, remain in force, she has signed no new contracts. By failing to get either of the Olympic gold medals it was thought she might win—in the 1,500, which she chose not to enter, as well as the 3,000—and by coming out on the short end of the Budd affair, Decker lost out on an incalculable amount of endorsement and personal-appearance money. If nothing else, Friday's race would be the start of her battle to regain appeal as a corporate spokeswoman.
Many of the 13,702 spectators in the Sports Arena came expecting to see a battle between Decker and Ruth Wysocki. "I've given her every reason to want to thrash me and set a world record," said a joking Wysocki, the surprise winner over Decker in last year's Olympic trials 1,500. "But if she shows up with her fingernails sharpened to points, I quit." Wysocki had unwittingly poured gasoline on the Decker-Budd fire 10 days before by speaking frankly to reporters about what she perceived as Decker's cruel and unfair treatment of Budd at the Olympics. "The attitude [Decker] portrayed after that fall is in attitude that we, as competitors, have seen all along," Wysocki said. "In a way, some of us are relieved that the public knows the Mary we all know."
The interview quickly became headline news: WYSOCKI DOES A NUMBER ON DECKER, cried the Los Angeles Times. "A lot of reporters told me, 'You're not telling us anything we don't already know,' " said Wysocki privately. "I wasn't trying to be vicious. I respect Mary immensely for all she's achieved. I was just upset at the way she treated Zola."
A thunder of cheers and boos greeted Decker's prerace introduction at the Sunkist. The same boxing-crowd clamor welcomed Wysocki. "Let's go Zola!" shouted one fan.
Despite all the criticism leveled at her, Decker has rebounded quickly from her Olympic turmoil and started a new chapter in her life. An upbeat chapter.
"People had a tendency to think Mary was emotionally very down after the Games, but that just wasn't the case." says her coach, Dick Brown. "She realized that the controversy with Zola will never be settled, so she put it behind her. She's going to run for eight more years, so she figured why dwell on it?"
Once back at home in Eugene, Ore. last fall the 26-year-old Decker spent much of her time nailing up plasterboard, sewing curtains and otherwise helping to remodel a local tanning salon in which her fiancé, 6'7", 320-pound British discus thrower Richard Slaney, had acquired part ownership.
On New Year's Day Decker and Slaney were married in a simple 20-minute ceremony at the First United Methodist Church in Eugene. Slaney walked his bride down the aisle—Decker's father having dropped out of her life when she was 12—and lent a casual feeling to the affair, greeting guests as they arrived at the church, and checking the focus of a videotape camera before the ceremony began. 'Richard has a calming effect on me," says Decker: her new husband also scolds her for her birdlike eating habits and keeps her from her self-destructive habit of overtraining.
Decker's mail, like Slaney, helped to assure and uplift her "We've received about 4,000 letters since the Olympics, and of those I'd say maybe 15 have been negative—and all of them unsigned," says Brown. "Kids have been sending her ribbons and medals, and writing, 'We think you should have won a gold medal. Here's a medal that I won. Please keep it until you win yours.' " One Portland, Ore. man sent Decker his Purple Heart with a note that said, "You have earned it and very much more.... I am giving [this] to you for the way you subconsciously dove out of the way toward the infield in that collision.... [Yours was] the most honorable type of injury."
Decker's competitive streak showed most clearly in a succession of excellent workouts in December and early January. "She has the hunger from never having peaked last year," said Brown before the Sunkist. "She might have taken this year lightly if she'd done well at the Olympics and in Europe. But there's a part of her that still needs to be satisfied."
With the crack of the starting gun on Friday night. Decker issued, in the bold strokes of her running, a graceful and articulate message of redemption. She moved quickly to the front of the six-woman field, a long stride ahead of Wysocki. "I've never run much indoors." Wysocki had said earlier. "I just hope I can stay close." For 600 yards, she did. Straining, spikes clicking, she chased Decker around and around the small (160-yard), banked, plywood track. The crowd noise was building.
Then, suddenly, Decker broke free. Looking more slender and delicate than ever, she cruised past 1,000 meters in 2:46.8, four seconds under world-record pace. "It all seemed too easy," she would say later. It all looked too easy, too. If Decker hadn't lost an indoor race since 1976, neither had she run with any more ease and fluidity. She passed 1,500 meters in 4:12.5 and then a mile (4:31.0), utterly destroying Podkopayeva's record pace. Wysocki was by now nearly half a lap behind. The crowd was no longer playing favorites. It was screaming itself hoarse.
On the last of the 13¾ laps, Decker clenched her teeth, her first show of effort. "I probably had too much left in me," she would say later, but when she hit the finish line few could believe what she had done: 5:34.52, more than eight seconds faster than the old record in this infrequently contested event. Wysocki finished 90 yards back in second, not at all unhappy with her 5:45.93.
"Richard requested a wedding present from me tonight," said Decker. "'He asked me to run well, feel good and set a world record. Not because he wanted it, but because he knew I wanted it."
As Decker warmed down beneath the stands, dozens of children chased after her with pens and programs. She would eventually sit down at a card table and spend an hour signing for almost all of them. The rebuilding of an image had begun. Or as Ted McLaughlin promoter of the Dallas Times-Herald meet, put it, "If you run well enough, people will forget about everything else."