Zola Budd's stride is long and strong, and she lands on her heels. Wendy Sly's stride is light and swift, and her feet descend as do cats' paws, each with a little pounce before pressing the asphalt.
The contrast between the two British subjects was stark last Saturday because from the first seconds of the Continental Homes 10 Kilometer Road Race in Phoenix, Sly and Budd ran elbow to elbow in the lead. Budd, not yet 19, is 5'4" and 90 pounds, two inches taller and four pounds heavier than she was last summer, when she found herself implanted in a billion or so Olympic remembrances. When she wears shoes, as she does on the road, Budd loses some of the frightened-waif aspect that going barefoot on the track gives her. So her run in Phoenix, only her third international road race ever, provided a clearer view of her talent and temperament than did those anguished Games. As she and Sly, who won the Olympic silver medal in the 3,000, passed the mile in 4:59, leaving the field behind, Budd's expression was one of beetle-browed concentration mixed with an occasional look—down the wide, greening and empty Phoenix thoroughfares—of relief.
"Yes," she would say later, "no matter how hard I was running, it felt good to have a normal race."
Until now, a normal Budd race has been one in which she's been led from the course in tears. It happened in the Los Angeles Olympic 3,000 meters, when Mary Decker Slaney tripped on Budd's heels. Slaney's subsequent tumble onto the infield jammed her thighbone into her hip socket so hard that she couldn't train again until October. Budd ran crying through a gale of booing to her distraught seventh-place finish, then had to weather the abrupt words and scathing tone of Slaney, her childhood idol, who held her responsible for the accident.
March 11, 1985
For this shambles of an Olympics, Budd had given up her South African citizenship and emigrated to her father's ancestral Britain.
For this mess she had sacrificed her privacy and lived in a maelstrom of protest from those who insisted on seeing her as a representative of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
For this wreck of an Olympics, it turns out, Budd may even have endangered her parents' marriage. After Los Angeles she fled back to Bloemfontein, her hometown and the capital of the Orange Free State, then moved to Stellenbosch near Cape Town. Her mother, Tossie, went with her gladly, but her father, Frank, stayed in England until recently. Although he's now back in South Africa, he and his wife are still living apart. "My father has nothing to do with my athletic career anymore," Budd said in Phoenix. "I'd rather not talk about it."
Thus, last fall she wanted nothing more than to return to the quiet life of her childhood. Once back in South Africa, she announced that she would never race internationally again, that she would be content to compete only in the country of her birth. She would have to be content. Because of the International Amateur Athletic Federation's policies, as soon as she ran her first race on South African soil she would be forever barred from running elsewhere.
"Perhaps no one will ever know what we went through," says her coach, Pieter Labuschagne. "In South Africa she'd have peace. She could run without coping with all the politics." But he also knew that it was the easy way out, that any such peace would be gained by compromising Budd's talent. She needed competition. She would find it only in Europe and America. Labuschagne counseled her to wait, to train, to feel her competitive urge returning.
A British official arrived in South Africa to talk with Budd, surely to say that things couldn't go on being as traumatic as 1984 had been.
She was provided with an apartment in Stellenbosch and a little sports car by her South African sponsor and adviser, Jannie Momberg, a vineyard owner. She enrolled in correspondence courses at the University of South Africa. And she relented.
"She put down a list of preconditions for her return," says Labuschagne. She would choose her races not for money but with an eye to what was good for her racing development. Her restrictive contract with London's Daily Mail—which had sponsored her move to England—had expired, and there would never be another deal like that. "The Mail keeping her entirely away from any other press was a mistake," says Labuschagne. "From now on the press had to be properly handled." That meant some formal press conferences and an interview a week. "She's still tender about the past," says Labuschagne. "Is that the right word? Still sensitive about everything that happened."
She returned to the house she maintains in Guildford, England, 27 miles southwest of London, and got back to racing in December, winning an 8-km road race in Switzerland. Then, last month at Birkenhead, England, she took part in the English championships to choose the women's team for the World Cross Country Championships. Before the mile mark she was running second when it all started again. Charging across the field at her were a flock of passionate anti-apartheid protesters. The race leader, Angela Tooby, flew at the interlopers, swinging angrily. But Budd simply swerved and slowed and stopped.
"I saw those people," she said. "I saw in their eyes that they'd really grab me, stop me, stop the race, so I veered off." Labuschagne and several policemen walked her to safety, but she was shaken. Would every race be like this? Would she always be such a magnet for trouble?
Then came Phoenix. "It's like getting back up on the horse again," said 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, whom Budd, Labuschagne and Momberg have retained to represent her in making arrangements for the race in the U.S. Shorter thereby gained a close look at how the Budd camp operates. He feels that the popular image of the child runner who is at the mercy of coach and advisers is far from the truth. "Yes, in meetings, when she's there, they sometimes talk about her in the third person invisible," he says. "But then she'll whisper a word or two in Afrikaans to Pieter, and that will decide things."
At her press conference two days before the Phoenix race, Budd was poised and relaxed, even if her voice was so soft as to be drowned out by the sound of camera shutters. Her theme was the necessity of looking to the future and burying the past. "There was a demonstration at our cross-country race," she said, "but I'm confident there won't be any problems here." Indeed, the Phoenix police had doubled the number of traffic patrolmen working the race and had assigned an unspecified number of "community relations" officers to guarantee security. Shorter, who had listened to some of the police plans, said, "I just worry about some innocent wandering onto the course and getting flattened."
Inevitably, Budd was asked to address herself to the question of apartheid. Her reply to the press was clipped and practiced. "I'm a runner, not a politician," she said. "So I don't want to speak about politics. I want to run. I don't want to think about politics."
Budd has never made a statement about South African race policies, but friends say they believe Budd is not opposed to full civil rights for the nation's 68% black majority so long as emancipation brings no violence or lowering of the whites' standard of living.
It would seem, then, that saying as much publicly would defuse some of the rage of the protestors who dog her in Western Europe. "But she has never made a statement because they [the press] won't stop there," said Labuschagne. "They'll ask further questions about it, about which politician's plans she supports. It would be endless."
Just as endless as all the questions about her sentiments towards Slaney, who has not competed since injuring her right calf in a New York indoor meet last month. "I am disappointed she's not here," said Budd. "For a while we thought she would be." Slaney had been entered at Phoenix, but then withdrew before Budd even entered. She was in England on Saturday to repeat her wedding vows with Richard Slaney, the British discus record holder, for the benefit of his family.
Asked if she still had Slaney's poster above her bed, as she did in more tranquil days, Budd smiled and said, "I've moved now, so...," and drew laughter.
"They will meet one day, to talk, when no one but Zola and I and Dick [Brown, Slaney's coach] and Mary know about it," said Labuschagne. "She doesn't blame Mary at all. She doesn't want an apology."
But she got one all the same. Marathoner Alberto Salazar, recovering from knee and hamstring surgery but in Phoenix to do CBS commentary for television, had brought Budd a letter from Slaney. "I've seen the contents," he said smiling. "It is very conciliatory."
Budd said that was very nice and asked Salazar to deliver the letter after the race because Slaney or no Slaney, she expected to have her hands full with Sly.
Indeed, they hit two miles in 10:07. The course formed a lopsided figure eight through the printed circuitry of Phoenix's residential street plan. There was only one mild disturbance, a man in a gray business suit holding a sign of protest. There was little evidence of security, either. Kids on bikes rode next to Budd and Sly. Strollers on the sidewalk could have touched them easily. That seemed alarming for a while, but then it became clear that it was wonderful. It showed that people were civil, that Budd didn't have to be guarded every step of the race. That may have been when she began to feel better about life. It definitely was when Sly ran away with the race.
After they passed three miles in 15:16, Sly moved to a five-yard lead. Her large brown eyes were round. Budd seemed to lean forward and put more into her wide-swinging arms, but she could not force herself back to Sly's side. Sly had 40 yards at four miles in 20:32. "She got that gap," said Budd later, "and I couldn't close it. It stayed the same until the last mile." Then Budd tired, and Sly pulled away to win in 32:03. Budd was 17 seconds back in 32:20. Charging hard was a third Briton, 40-year-old Priscilla Welch, who placed sixth in the L.A. Olympic marathon. "At four and five miles I thought, 'Where's everybody else?' " she said. "I said, 'Bloody hell, Priscilla, keep going. You'll be third.' " She finished only 30 yards behind Budd in a world age-group best of 32:25.
Budd, who was chosen for the English cross-country team despite not being able to complete the trials race, must now ready herself for the Cross Country Championships in Lisbon on March 24. After that, she will return to South Africa and train until late May, when she will move back to Guildford, for the European season. Her outlook cannot be called anything but positive. "I think all the controversy will die down in the future," she said. "If I keep running, people will forget about the past." At dinner a few days before the race, she had taken the long view. The very long view. "Someday I'd like to run the Comrades Marathon," she giggled. That is South Africa's 52-mile ultramarathon.
"And in 1996 she'll run the Athens Marathon," put in Labuschagne, "the 100th anniversary of the modern marathon." Budd will be 30 then, but considering all she'll have been through, she'll have transcended mere maturity and gone on to the wisdom of the ages.