When I began running again last year, I had no idea I could ever run internationally again and certainly not in the inspiring atmosphere of a South African Olympic team! I can never forgive the people who hounded me for what they did to me, but now we South Africans might go back as heroes!
—ZOLA PIETERSE, NEE BUDD
As heroes! Zola Budd was track and field's designated whipping girl of the 1980s, a thin, frowning child-champion from South Africa who wound up snared in a web of racism, greed, protest, bad luck, grief, divorce, scandal and, yes, ultimately even murder. Budd seemed always to be under siege, on the lam or in the wrong, stubbornly dodging demands that she clearly declare, once and for all, her opposition to apartheid. Instead of seeming heroic, she seemed very brave but at the same time quite helpless, trapped as she was in the schizophrenic role of playing both the victim and the symbol of white South Africa's racist regime.
Zola Pieterse is something else. In late April, when she uttered the words printed above, she was curled up in a chair with a cat on her lap in her spacious ranch house, in the open South African countryside, a couple of miles beyond the limits of Bloemfontein, the small, drab capital of the Orange Free State. She was glowing, a small, very nearly beautiful woman who looked tranquil, composed, content.
On that day, she repeated the unmistakable antiapartheid declaration that she at last had made public in her autobiography, Zola, published in early 1989: "The Bible says men are born equal before God. I can't reconcile segregation along racial lines with the words of the Bible. As a Christian, I find apartheid intolerable." Had she made that statement in 1984, it would have saved her four years of emotional anguish and allowed her to compete trouble-free, at least politically. But she waited—perversely, it seems—until she had been drummed out of her sport and was stuck in exile before revealing publicly what she says she always had believed privately.
June 23, 1991
So perhaps heroic is not exactly the word that comes to mind to describe Zola Pieterse in her chair with her cat. But there was a maturity, a dignity, a spiritual stature that certainly seemed capable of blossoming into something like heroism if and when the call should come.
And Zola Pieterse may well get that call. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is leaning toward inviting South Africa to participate in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona after 32 years of exile from Olympic competition. The official IOC decision probably will not come for some time, but things look very promising. As a condition for South Africa's re-admission to the Games, the IOC has stipulated that racially separate South African Olympic organizations and sports federations unite as single entities—and this is happening rapidly. The IOC also has insisted that the rest of Africa's national Olympic committees approve South Africa's return to good standing—and that, too, seems about to happen.
Indeed, IOC insiders say that the acceptance of Zola Pieterse and her teammates in time for them to compete in Barcelona is pretty much guaranteed. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch's desire is that the South Africans celebrate their historic resurrection in his hometown at the same opening ceremonies in which a single team representing Germany will appear for the first time since 1936.
The IOC's final decision on South Africa will depend in large part on whether the government of President F.W. de Klerk can actually accomplish his promise—made in June 1990—to do away with apartheid and rewrite the national constitution. Over the past year the government has erased many of the most onerous racial laws relating to residence, property ownership and restricted movement. Yet much remains to be done, and, at times, the obstacles have looked insurmountable. In mid-May, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) declared that it would boycott all discussions on rewriting the constitution until the government took steps to curb violence among competing black factions. Until that document is revised, blacks—including Mandela himself—cannot vote, and many civil rights leaders both in and outside South Africa feel that no sanctions, sports or otherwise, should be lifted.
Nevertheless, the hopes of South African sportsmen run high. Not since the 1960 Games in Rome has their country fielded an Olympic team—and it was 100% white, of course. Since then, a handful of South Africans, all carrying passports from other countries, have been able to compete in an Olympics. Sydney Maree, who became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and qualified for the L.A. Games, was one of them. A thigh injury knocked him out of those Olympics, but he ran the 5,000 meters in Seoul. Also in 1984 there was Zola Budd, a shy, bony waif of 17 with the legs of an antelope, the face of an angel and the luck of a leper.
She had been a phenom in South Africa since 1982 when, at 15, she won the national women's championships at 3,000 and 1,500 meters. She burst upon the rest of the world one windy January night in '84, in a race at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town in which she shattered Mary Decker's world record in the 5,000 by more than six seconds—15:01.83 to 15:08.26. Of course, that mark was never official because of South Africa's exile status. Instead of remembering that performance as a triumphant high point in her life, Zola has come to look back on it with something like loathing. In her autobiography, which was written with the South African sportswriter Hugh Eley, she wrote, "Back in 1984 the 5,000 meters for women was a relatively new race and Mary Decker's world record was not really that difficult. [It] was...within striking distance of anybody who was in good shape. I have always told people since then that the 15:01 was about the worst thing that could have happened to me as it resulted in four years of trauma with a handful of bright spots in between: 5 January 1984 was probably the worst day of my life."
That is not the only time in Zola that she refers to her running as inextricably tied to pain and loss. A chapter entitled "Running from Death" deals in wrenching prose with the sudden death in 1980 of a beloved sister, Jenny, who was 25 to Zola's 14: "Her death made everything in my life, even eating and drinking, seem of secondary importance.... Running was the easiest way to escape from the harsh reality of losing my sister because when I ran I didn't have to think about life or death.... There is no doubt that the loss of Jenny had a major effect on my running career. By escaping from her death I ran into world class and although my running was to bring me much heartache and unpleasantness, I'm sure Jenny was proud of me each time I did well."
Zola Pieterse views much of her previous life through a glass very darkly—and with excellent reason. Of the day in 1984 on which she was granted the British passport that opened the way for her to run in a full schedule of international races—including the Los Angeles Olympics—she wrote, "it should have been the greatest moment of my life.... Instead, I saw the passport that thrust me into the world spotlight as a symbol of my abuse."
Even the most casual readers of English tabloids and American sports pages will remember 17-year-old Zola Budd's star-crossed saga as an international competitor. It began in March of that year, when she left South Africa for England accompanied by her father, Frank, a printer by trade, and her Afrikaner mother, Tossie, a caterer. Five weeks later Budd's coach, Pieter Labuschagne, joined them. The London Daily Mail had paid 100,000 pounds for the exclusive rights to her story, had bought the plane tickets to bring the Budds to England and, on very short notice, had arranged for Zola and Frank Budd to get the British passports that were legally theirs because Frank's father had been born an Englishman. She recalls all this as being nothing more than child exploitation of a Dickensian sort. "Daddy recognized my commercial value," she wrote, "while Pieter was already savouring the prestige he would get as the coach of a world class athlete.... Together with the Daily Mail which arranged the cloak-and-dagger operation to get me to England in what was, for it, a massive and highly successful publicity stunt, they turned me into some kind of circus animal.... I was plucked away from everything I loved and put in an environment where I, as a person, no longer counted."
Predictably, once Zola Budd and her entourage left South Africa, they became prime targets for antiapartheid demonstrators, as well as for all sorts of social predators—tabloid gossipmongers, assorted political nuts and any number of loonies who gathered in the street outside their house in Guildford, 27 miles southwest of London. Zola was labeled a racist, an opportunist, a traitor, a moneygrubber.
Her parents were of no help to her in this stormy time. Frank and Tossie had been married more than 30 years and had produced six children, of whom Zola was the youngest. Frank was a shortish, balding man with a very pink, very British complexion. Tossie was quite large, with rugged Afrikaner features. "My father was liberal in his outlook on life, my mother conservative; he spoke English, she Afrikaans," Zola says. In this case opposites did not continue to attract, and the two fought for years. When the Budds moved to England, Frank loved life there, Tossie detested it, and their fights grew more furious. "If those quarrels had happened in Bloemfontein, the trouble would have been over in a week," says Zola, "but under all that pressure, they were driven to a flash point. The marriage broke in pieces, and so did our world. Two weeks before the Olympics I moved out of the house, and I told my father that if he came to the Olympics, I would not compete."
Frank didn't come, and, unfortunately, Zola did compete, producing the colossal trip-up with Decker in the 3,000-meter race. The collision left Decker sprawled in a rage on the infield while Budd wobbled in seventh, amid a bombardment of boos from the partisan U.S. crowd. Though she looked badly beaten at the time, Budd wrote in her autobiography that she could quite easily have won a medal but that she had purposely slowed down after the accident: "I had to finish the race. What I couldn't endure, however, was the thought of facing all those people on the rostrum. It sounds easy to say, but I knew once the race had started that I was good enough to win a silver or bronze medal. Deep inside me, though, was now a dread of standing on a rostrum, and I began running slower and slower. People passed me and I didn't care—everything had collapsed and I just wanted out."
She saw Decker in the stadium tunnel and told her she was sorry. "Don't bother!" snapped Decker. Five months later, in December 1984, a Dear Zola letter from Decker came, which said, among other things, "I've been wanting to write this letter to you for a long time. The reason I haven't sent [it] before is because I was sure that you would not receive it personally. I simply want to apologize to you for hurting your feelings at the Olympics...it was a very hard moment for me emotionally and I reacted in an emotional manner.... The next time we meet I would like to shake your hand and let everything that has happened be put behind us. Who knows; sometimes even the fiercest competitors become friends."
The tranquil Zola Pieterse says now of her first chaotic year abroad, "If I had it to do over, I would do it quite the same, except I would not have tried to compete in Los Angeles. Not because of what happened with Mary. That was fate, and if it had been anyone else, it would have been nothing. But the Games were too soon for me. I needed more time to make the adjustment to the world outside South Africa. Maybe I could have done it if my family had given me support, but there was none. When I most needed help, the most important people in my life were not there at all."
Of course, the trouble continued after the Olympics. Zola discovered that her father was pocketing a lot of the money from the Mail, and she went home, emotionally ravaged, to Bloemfontein. Jannie Momberg, a wealthy Cape Town wine farmer, a member of parliament and a vice-president of the South African Amateur Athletic Association, began advising her. "We nursed her back slowly into world competition, and she had a great year in 1985. Physically she was in superb condition, mentally she was pathetic," he says. That year, Budd lost three rematches with Decker but won the world cross-country championship in Portugal and set a world record of 14:48.07 in a 5,000-meter race in London. In '86, she repeated as world cross-country champion and set an indoor world mark of 8:39.79 in the 3,000.
The antiapartheid protests against her never let up, especially when she was in England, where she had to live six months a year to maintain her citizenship. They were led by Sam Ramsamy, a militant South African of Indian descent who had been in exile in London since the early 1970s. Zola wrote bitterly in her book: "My quarrel with them was not over apartheid, but over the way they had attacked me and I did not believe they had any right to use me as a target in their bid to dismantle apartheid." Ironically, Ramsamy is now chairman of the Interim National Olympic Committee of South Africa, which has been the transitional body bringing the single-race Olympic groups together so the likes of Zola Pieterse can compete in international meets.
Whether or not Ramsamy overdid his attacks on her, the fact is that Budd consistently refused to reject, disclaim or even gently criticize apartheid. At one point Momberg tried to get her to make this statement: "I, Zola Budd, hereby declare my total objection to any form of discrimination, be it race, religion or language." She refused, telling Momberg—as she had many times before—that her politics were private. Ramsamy later told Momberg that had Budd put her name to that single sentence, the antiapartheid pressure on her would likely have lifted.
Even now, her rationale for remaining silent is defiantly defensive and completely misses the crucial point that apartheid is one of the great social crimes of the 20th century. Staying silent is, in effect, being an accessory to that crime. However, in her book Budd wrote, "My attitude is that, as a sportswoman, I should have the right to pursue my chosen discipline in peace.... Seb Coe does not get asked to denounce Soviet expansionism; and Carl Lewis is not required to express his view on the Contra arms scandal. But I was not afforded that courtesy and it became a matter of principle for me not to give those who were intent on discrediting me the satisfaction of hearing me say what they most wanted to hear."
So, of course, antiapartheid activists continued to protest Budd's participation in just about every race she entered. All of this took a toll on Budd, who had just turned 20. She spent wakeful nights wandering around her house in Guildford, hugging a pillow and periodically bursting into long spells of weeping. She was also suffering from an injury in her right hip, caused by a difference in the lengths of her legs. This ultimately resulted in a stress fracture where the hamstring joins the pelvis, and the throbbing pain kept her awake even more than before. She tried several different doctors in several different countries. Then, in May 1987 in Johannesburg, she met a kinesiologist named Ronald Holder. He not only cured her but became a friend.
Holder's technique for treating Budd's injury involved placing wedges made from cut-up telephone-book pages in her shoes. Bizarre though they sound, the phone-book supports allowed Budd to run without pain in a fairly short time, and today she has no trouble at all. She still runs barefoot—as she once did almost all the time—in a few races, but she must wear shoes containing Holder's wedges when training and for all competitions of more than 3,000 meters, though she would rather go barefoot. "I feel lighter on my feet without shoes," she says. "I have always walked barefoot in Bloemfontein, even shopping. That was one more thing I disliked about Britain: They laughed and pointed at me when I went barefoot into the shops."
She kept going back and forth between well-shod England and barefoot Bloemfontein in 1986, '87 and into '88, and her life was as unhappy as it was unsettled. "The political atmosphere affected my racing terribly," she says. "I felt I had to win a political war before I could win a race." Yet she kept running—and, very often, winning. In 1988, Budd was planning to compete for Britain in the world cross-country championships in New Zealand in April, despite threats of a boycott by black African nations and others. Thanks to Holder's wedges, she was by then running without pain and had high hopes, not only for the New Zealand event but also for the 3,000 meters at the Seoul Olympics the following September. Then, on April 16, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) crushed those hopes by recommending that she be suspended for 12 months by the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) from all sanctioned competitions. The grounds for the suspension: During a visit to South Africa the previous year, Budd had, according to the IAAF, breached the spirit of the rules by merely appearing at—though not competing in—road races in her homeland. Zola called the IAAF's action "a witchhunt," and in a way she was probably right. The IAAF had been under increasing anti-Budd pressure from African and other Third World countries, and it was eager to resolve the situation, particularly with the Olympics coming up. The BAAB refused to accept the IAAF verdict and insisted on further investigation of her "spirit-breaching" violation. But before such an investigation could be completed, Budd broke under the strain.
Once again, she fled to Bloemfontein. A doctor who examined her in London before she left described her as "a pitiful sight, prone to bouts of crying and deep depressions...[with] all the clinical signs of anxiety." She told the press back home, "I have been made to feel like a criminal. I have been continuously hounded, and I can't take it anymore."
Now the recuperation began. Frank and Tossie had finally divorced in 1986. Her father had moved to an isolated stone farmhouse in the hills outside town, but her mother was in the old homestead. Without the domestic battles to preoccupy her, Tossie gave Zola great support. But the best medicine in her recovery proved to be a big, gentle bear of a man, Michael Pieterse, then 26, the good-natured son of a wealthy Bloemfontein businessman and the co-owner of a local liquor store. Zola had met him a couple of years earlier, and they began seeing each other soon after her return—secretly, in order to avoid being skewered by the sharp tongues of Bloemfontein's busy gossips. They grew closer and closer until Budd, ever insecure, began to worry that perhaps she was falling in love while Pieterse was not. Thus one day in August '88, she said, "Listen, Mike.... I have got to have a commitment from you." Whereupon they bought an engagement ring and set a wedding date of April 15, 1989.
It was an intimate wedding, happy in every way—except that Frank Budd had done his best to spoil it. He and Zola had had almost no contact since the 1984 Olympics. She had tried to patch things up once by bringing him a gift from Los Angeles, but he refused to accept it. Nevertheless, she had him on the guest list for the wedding, though she had no intention of having him give her away. Before the invitations went out, Zola asked her brother Quintus to stand in for Frank. When Frank heard about it, he was furious. He told Quintus that he would disinherit him if he gave Zola away. Frank's name was promptly crossed off the invitation list, and Mike's father was enlisted to escort her down the aisle. Later, when a reporter asked Frank about the wedding, he snarled, "I no longer have a daughter called Zola."
At the time, though Zola and the rest of the Budds didn't know it, Frank was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the liver and the spleen. However, he did not die of cancer. One day in early October 1989 his blood-spattered body was found sprawled across his bed by Quintus, who had gone to the stone farmhouse to investigate reports that his father was missing. Frank's pickup truck and his checkbook were gone. He had been shot twice with his own shotgun. The next day a 24-year-old Afrikaner named Christian Johannes Botha Barnard, who had sometimes worked for Frank, was arrested. At his trial, Barnard said that on the night of Sept. 30, Frank had insulted Barnard's girlfriend and made "a sexual approach" to Barnard, and Barnard had shot him. Barnard was convicted of murder and theft, but the judge sentenced him to only 12 years in prison because of "extenuating circumstances."
Frank's will stated specifically that Zola was not to be allowed to attend his funeral and that she was not to be buried in the family cemetery plot. She is philosophical these days about her relationship with the strange, volatile man who was her father: "We had no contact before his death. I would have liked to have a reconciliation. I would have liked to remind him that I had once loved him. There was no chance, and that was quite terrible for all of us. But he gave me no choice."
For now, it seems that the chaos and distress that disrupted so much of Zola Budd's life no longer cast even a vague shadow over Zola Pieterse's slow, sunny world in Bloemfontein. "I can really say that I am happy now," she says. "Michael is a very great person. We have lots of things in common, but not sports. Oh, he plays golf, but he is not really good at it. I sometimes go with him and hit away at everything with a six-iron. We live quietly. I don't cook unless it is absolutely unavoidable. I am running again, of course, and it is going very well. Michael has no problem with my running or my being famous. He isn't threatened by it. Of course, because of Michael I don't have to run. Running is only one part of my life now, not all of it as it used to be, not everything."
But even if the running isn't everything anymore, it is definitely something that is getting bigger by the day. This is a relatively surprising development, for Pie-terse wrote in Zola that she was through with serious competition: "As a married woman, I just do not have the motivation necessary to make a comeback in the overseas arena.... If South Africa were to be readmitted to world athletics tomorrow, I don't think I would take part."
At the time Pieterse meant that beyond a doubt. She had let herself become quite plump—122 pounds, compared with the waifish 82 she had weighed during the Los Angeles Games. And she did no serious training from the spring of 1988 until mid-'89, when she began working out in secret. She picked an acquaintance from Bloemfontein to be her coach—Van Zyl Naude, who was once a pretty good 800-meter runner and now operates a photo processing shop and was training a dozen or so local runners on the side. "When Zola first began to run again, she felt shy," he says. "She had no idea whether she could come back, so she didn't want people to know she was training. At first, she could only train three days a week. It was very difficult for her."
"I only started again because it is my nature to run," she says. "I couldn't enjoy it at first. I'd train for two days, then I'd be sick for two days. In July 1989 I had tick-bite fever and encephalitis. I was in the hospital for a while. My system had all the energy sucked out. I had no resistance. I got infections, I was weak all the time. But I kept trying. In August I ran in a citizens' 10K race in Bloemfontein. They had no idea I was coming until the day of the race. I didn't want to make any splash at all. After four K's I was dead. But I kept going, and I finished, and I was terrible—37 minutes or so. That was the hardest race I ever ran in my life. But I was quite pleased to have finished. I kept training, but it wasn't until December I began to feel good and fit enough to consider running competitively."
By April 1990 she felt ready to take on the best woman distance runner in South Africa, Elana Meyer, at the South African championships. Meyer, a 23-year-old wisp of an athlete who had been turning in world-class times, had come to be hailed as the new Zola during the years when the real Zola was suffering from nagging injury and emotional exhaustion.
There didn't seem to be much of a chance for the barely fit Pie-terse. "I had only been training a year or so," she says. "Her training background was much better than mine, since she had been running constantly for five, six years. She was much more fit." To everyone's astonishment the real Zola defeated the new Zola by 8.36 seconds in the 3,000-meter race with the mediocre time of 9:17.00. In a rematch with Meyer in February of this year, Pieterse won again, this time by 1.84 seconds with a stunningly good time of 8:42.26. Pieterse was elated. "I had thought that if I could meet the Springbok national team standard of 8:50, I would be very happy at this stage of coming back," she said. "But 8:42! I have never come back from so long out of training, so I didn't know what to expect. I now think I am going to run better times than I ever did before. I won't be in top form for a while, but I'm definitely getting better." She does as many as three training sessions a day, and her weight has fallen to a strong 110 pounds, zaftig compared with her Olympic size but good for now.
On April 29 in the Indian Ocean coast city of Durban, Pieterse and Meyer went head-to-head in another 3,000. By then Meyer had broken Zola's South African record for the 5,000, and Pieterse had broken Meyer's mark for the 2,000. Durban's Kings Park Stadium was overflowing for the occasion, with 11,000 people crammed into a place built to accommodate 8,000. It was the largest crowd for a track and field meet there since 1964, when New Zealand's great middle-distance runner Peter Snell raced there in the first year of South Africa's exclusion from the Olympics.
Pieterse and Meyer hung together lap after lap, until the smooth-striding Meyer slowly began to move in front. When the bell rang for the last lap, she was leading by 15 meters. She held off Pieterse's kick and crossed the finish line in a burst of power, still 15 meters ahead. Her time of 8:32.00 was within 10 seconds of the world record and the best time in the world in the last 31 months. It surpassed Zola's African-and South African-record time of 8:37.5.
Pieterse finished in 8:35.72, which also broke her old record and was the second-best time in the world in the past 31 months.
Clearly Zola is back—and clearly she is capable of performances that could win world championships and Olympic medals. Will Zola Budd in her reincarnation as Zola Pieterse be given a second chance for glory? Yes, and it may be sooner rather than later. The IAAF is reported to be on the brink of inviting South African athletes back into competition in time for the world championships, which begin Aug. 23 in Tokyo.
Naturally, Pieterse is enthusiastic about these possibilities, but she swears she is in no hurry: "This time I will wait until there is some final word that we are truly welcomed back. I shan't go near an airplane leaving South Africa until the official stamp is on the invitation. But, oh, when the time comes, it will be wonderful—especially when we are allowed into the Olympics. There we will be, a true South African Olympic team, and many of us will be black, of course, and we will be marching into the stadium in Barcelona, all together. There will be lots of tears and very full throats on that day. I look forward to it very much."
Zola Pieterse turned 25 on May 26. She has a full running career behind her, and it looks as if another lies ahead. One thing can be said for certain: The odds are very, very good that her next quarter century is going to be far more gratifying than the last one was.