To hear Zola Budd speak during her first days in England in the spring of 1984, one had to lean forward and listen intently. "I am just a runner," she would say, eyes down, voice barely audible. "I am not a politician." The words carried a strong accent of Afrikaans, Budd's first language and the traditional tongue of Afrikaners, white, Dutch-descended South Africans. Just as Great Britain was Budd's second country, so was English her second language. She was taught English in the racially segregated schools of Bloemfontein, South Africa, but almost always spoke Afrikaans at home, back when she was happy and naive and running barefoot.
Those days seemed a distant memory on Monday night of last week, when Budd boarded a Johannesburg-bound plane in London, emotionally drained and on the verge of a breakdown at the age of 21. After four years as a British subject, she had seen her life and her career disintegrate. In recent weeks, beset by antiapartheid groups and an International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) threat to ban her from competition for a year for appearing last June at a cross-country meet in the South African town of Brakpan, she had grown deeply depressed and had stopped running completely. Curiously, Budd had just begun to dream in English—but now she could no longer sleep.
Budd's move to Britain had seemed ill-fated from the start. Then 17, she had been condemned, along with other South African athletes, to compete only in her native land, the result of the worldwide sporting ban against South Africa in protest of the apartheid policies of its white racist government. Budd beat the world-record time for the 5,000 meters and ran the fastest ever 3,000 and 1,500 by a junior (under 19 years old). Because of the ban none of those marks was officially recognized. But all that happened before March 1984 when she was flown to Amsterdam by commercial jet under an assumed name (Miss Hamilton), then spirited into England in a private plane chartered by the Daily Mail, a London tabloid that had reportedly paid her more than $100,000 for exclusive rights to her story.
The whole deal was unseemly, an illustration of the sleazy checkbook journalism practiced by Britain's doggedly competitive tabloids. In the weeks following her arrival in Britain, Budd was kept in a remote hideaway on the edge of the New Forest to prevent rival photographers and reporters from seeing her, and there were even high-speed car chases as the Daily Mail sought to thwart rival media. Sensationalized Budd stories were printed by other tabloids to feed the public's hunger for information about the wispy teenage track star.
May 22, 1988
Supposedly because Budd was a minor whose paternal grandfather had been born in London—but more likely because the Daily Mail pulled strings and because she seemed capable of winning medals for Great Britain in the '84 Los Angeles Olympics—she was declared a British subject just 10 days after applying for citizenship. Such haste offended applicants who had been waiting for years.
At the L.A. Games, Budd struggled home seventh in the 3,000 after Mary Decker tripped over Budd's heel, an incident for which Budd was initially, and unfairly, blamed. In 1985 and '86 Budd won world cross-country titles for Britain and set an indoor world record in the 3,000 meters and an outdoor world record in the 5,000. But Budd, who had grown up the youngest of five children on the family farm near Bloemfontein, was overwhelmed by the events of her new life. Tellingly, of the money paid by the Daily Mail, only a small portion was said to have gone to Budd. Some of it went, at Budd's insistence, to her coach and mentor at the time, Pieter Labuschagne, a South African, and the bulk of it, according to newspaper reports, went to Frank Budd, Zola's father.
Shortly after the Olympics, Budd's parents, Frank and Tossie, separated. They are now divorced, and Frank has cited disagreements over Zola's move to England and over her career plans as factors in the breakup. Perhaps to prove that her loyalty was to Britain, not South Africa, Budd dropped Labuschagne, with whom she had a close relationship, in favor of a British coach. In 1986 she suffered thigh and hamstring injuries. Meanwhile, she found life in England so lonely that she needed to go back to South Africa regularly, no matter what the eligibility risks.
Under an International Olympic Committee ban, South Africans have not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Since 1976, IAAF rules have also banned them from international track and field competition; runners from member nations are prohibited from taking part in events in which South Africans participate. While there is no written rule against a runner visiting South Africa, the IAAF reserves the right to suspend an athlete who violates the spirit of the international ban by maintaining close ties to South Africa.
In recent weeks Budd's health became a matter of serious concern. She was said to be suffering from "nervous exhaustion" and doctors advised Tossie Budd, who went to England last month to care for her daughter, to keep her away from prescription medicine as a precaution against suicide attempts.
"Zola says she can't take the situation anymore," Budd's physician, Dr. Ken Kingsbury, told the London newspaper The Independent the day after she left for South Africa. "When I talked to her she was seldom far from tears. She is in an acutely distressed condition."
Budd had more than her shattered running career to contend with. The British press has reported that her mother has a serious blood disorder and her father, from whom she has been estranged in the last couple of years, is also ill. Budd, a loner whose closest friends have always been her many pets, is said to have grown quite upset upon hearing of the death in South Africa two weeks ago of her African gray parrot, At, whom she'd had for 19 years. Budd would sometimes call Bloemfontein from England to converse with the bird.
But the antiapartheid pressures took the greatest toll. They led Budd to announce, upon arriving in South Africa last week, that she will not compete in international track for "at least a year" and perhaps never again. "I have lost my love for athletics [track and field]," she said. "I don't want anything to do with athletics or any other sport."
"I have seen her crumble as a human being," said her British coach, John Bryant, a former Daily Mail editor. Bryant claimed that Budd had been offered up as "a human sacrifice" in the worldwide campaign against apartheid. Over the years, antiapartheid protesters had shoved Budd into bushes and blocked her path during races, but the harshest blows had come this winter. In March, Budd withdrew under pressure from the world cross-country championships in New Zealand to head off a boycott by black African nations incensed by reports of her appearance at the meet in Brakpan.
Budd admits that she took a high-visibility training run during the Brakpan meet but points out that she didn't compete in the event itself. But the IAAF ruled in April that her presence there violated the spirit of its ban. The IAAF urged the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) to suspend Budd for 12 months or risk having the entire British track and field team barred from international competition for a year, including this fall's Seoul Olympics. The IAAF toned down its threat against the team, but Budd may still be banned for a year after the BAAB finishes up its inquiry this week.
"I have been made to feel like a criminal," said Budd last week. "I have been continuously hounded and can't take it anymore. I still don't know what I'm supposed to have done—who am I supposed to have hurt?"
The cause of nonwhite South Africans, answer antiapartheid leaders. Critics of Budd say that by showing up at Brakpan and by spending more than half her time in South Africa over the last four years while competing for Britain, Budd has made a mockery of the antiapartheid sports ban. "She's a special case because she has so clearly flaunted the policies [against maintaining ties with South Africa]," says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and national chairman of ACCESS, an antiapartheid coalition of 35 political and religious groups. "She has never made strong statements against apartheid, even though that really isn't very hard to do these days."
To some intransigent Afrikaners, Budd symbolizes South Africa's determination to overcome global ostracism. But that is not to say that Budd herself supports apartheid; she has never made any public statements one way or the other. In fact, in 1984 Budd became the only white ever to be voted the Sports Star of the Year by the readers of Bona, a South African magazine with a predominantly black readership. And many blacks in South Africa are said to affectionately call the small vans in which they travel to work Zola Budds or simply Zolas.
"She is very popular, generally, among blacks and whites," says Mark Plaatjes, a black South African marathoner who was recently granted political asylum in the U.S. and is seeking American citizenship. "Part of it is her name, Zola. You know, Zola is a Zulu name, which I think is very ironic for an Afrikaner girl. I think a lot of the blacks in South Africa who are too poor to have a television or anything think Zola is a black girl."
In spite of her cautious silence on political matters, Budd seems to be open-minded on the subject of race. "When I walk down the streets in South Africa, it is always the black people greeting me," she told Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times last month in a rare one-on-one interview. "I can feel their honesty. I never mind, if I am running, if people shout at me, if [they are] black people. I really believe them more. Blacks in South Africa are much more honest."
Budd's return to Bloemfontein, however, reinforces the view of antiapartheid leaders that South Africa has remained her home all along. "She has committed athletic suicide," said Sam Ramsamy, chairman of the London-based South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, obviously confident that Budd is unlikely to compete again internationally. Tossie Budd says her daughter would like to go back to England, but don't count on its happening soon. By last Wednesday, movers had taken all the belongings from her house in Guildford, Surrey. In front of the house there was a FOR SALE sign.
Budd was welcomed back to South Africa with supportive editorials. One paper, Business Day, suggested that she resume her career in South Africa; another, The Citizen, a pro-government daily, excoriated Budd's enemies: "You have inflicted the grossest persecution on a young and world-renowned athlete, and if you have destroyed her international career—and we doubt whether she will ever run again overseas—you will stand condemned as bigots, blackmailers and political bullyboys."
Not everyone is so quick to sympathize with Budd. Her critics decry her move to England as blatant opportunism and say that her suffering is nothing compared to that of apartheid's victims. But in Britain, her return home—her real home—also prompted some national self-examination. As an editorial in The Daily Telegraph put it, "There prevails an impression that our own performance as the host country in this brief career has a shabby look. There is not a lot here for pride. We ought to be sad at her going, perhaps even a little ashamed."