She was once the fastest thing on the South African veld without
stripes or spots. On Jan. 5, 1984, a barefoot 17-year-old named
Zola Budd eclipsed Mary Decker's 5,000-meter world record by 6.5
seconds, though her time was not officially recognized because
her homeland had been exiled by track's governing body, the
International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). To allow her
to compete in international meets, the frail, knock-kneed
teenager was spirited into England in March '84 by a London
tabloid, granted British citizenship (she was eligible because
her paternal grandfather was English) and given a spot on the
Disaster struck in August at the Los Angeles Games during the
3,000-meter final, a much-hyped showdown between the Afrikaner
and the American favorite, Decker. On the fifth of 7 1/2 laps,
Decker clipped Budd's heel, got entangled in her legs and
tumbled to the ground. Sprawled on the L.A. Coliseum infield,
she tearfully quit. To a chorus of boos from the crowd of
85,000, the weeping Budd soldiered on, fading badly on the final
lap and finishing seventh.
Afterward Decker bitterly blamed Budd for the mishap, claiming
that the teenager had cut her off. "I was so embarrassed, I
wanted the ground to open up and for me to disappear," recalls
Budd, who tried to apologize to Decker in the tunnel. "When I
told Mary I was sorry, she said, 'Don't bother!' It was a
shattering experience. It ended my Olympic dreams."
But not her career. Over the next two years she officially broke
the world record in the 5,000 meters (14:48.07 at a 1985
international event in London) and twice won the world
cross-country championships. She was unable to outrun the stigma
of her birthplace, however, and became the target of
antiapartheid protesters. They sometimes blocked her path during
meets and forced her off course. "Everybody saw me as an agent
of apartheid," says Budd, who refused to publicly reject South
Africa's racial policies.
July 14, 2002
"Until I got to London in 1984, I never knew Nelson Mandela
existed," she continues. "I was brought up ignorant of what was
going on. All I knew was the white side expressed in South
African newspapers--that if we had no apartheid, our whole
economy would collapse. Only much later did I realize I'd been
lied to by the state."
Having withdrawn from the '86 Commonwealth Games due to the
apartheid controversy, and so hobbled by a chronic hamstring
injury that she had to race in shoes for the first time (she did
not even own running shoes until age 14), Budd returned, on the
verge of what she calls a nervous breakdown, to South Africa.
There she only ran into more trouble: She was barred from the
Seoul Games in '88 because she had attended a cross-country race
in her homeland the year before. (The IAAF considered that a
violation of its ban on South Africa.)
Budd's family life was equally turbulent. In '89 she had a
bitter falling out with her father, Frank, whom she accused of
"taking more than his fair share" of her race winnings. When she
refused to let him give her away at her '89 wedding to Mike
Pieterse, an owner and manager of three tourist hotels in
Bloemfontein, he angrily told the press, "To me Zola is dead.
Curse her. May she never be happy."
Five months later Frank Budd was murdered in a sordid shooting.
The hitchhiker who pulled the trigger claimed that Frank, a
closet homosexual, had made a pass at him. "If my father were
born today, he might never have married," Zola says. "Back then
South African society didn't accept homosexuals. It took a
terrible toll on him."
Budd's final Olympic foray came in 1992, when South Africa was
allowed to compete in the Games for the first time in 32 years
and she made the team in the 3,000. Drained by tick-bite fever
("I was as yellow as a lemon," she says), Budd was eliminated in
a qualifying heat in Barcelona. "Tick-bite fever is like Lyme
disease--it never leaves your system," she says. "This year is
the first I haven't had a relapse."
At 36 Budd lives quietly on her parents' farm in Bloemfontein
with her mother, Tossie; Pieterse, whom she met through mutual
friends in 1988; and their three children--daughter Lisa, 6, and
twins Michael and Avelle, 4. Though she rarely competes anymore,
Budd still runs 10 to 15 miles every day and hopes to soon enter
her first marathon.
Budd remains something of a celebrity in Bloemfontein. A small
street is named after her, and in township slang a Zola Budd is
a reliable, long-distance jitney. One that breaks down often is
called a Mary Decker.
It's been 10 years since Decker last spoke to Budd. "It was an
accident," says Decker (now Decker Slaney), who lives in Eugene,
Ore., with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. "What's to
forgive? It's history. Neither of us were happy with the
outcome." Budd, who has only recently reconciled herself with
her past, remembers the collision as a "nightmare come true. I
regret running in Los Angeles--I was too young. If I'd been born
a couple of years later, I'd have been just another athlete and
not a political pawn. My life would have been so very different.
But then, perhaps, my husband and I would never have gotten
Marriage and kids have altered her perspective. "When I was a
child, running gave me a means of escape and direction to my
life," she says. "But after the clash with Mary, running became
a pressure too. I stopped enjoying it. Now the pressure to
perform is gone, and I love running the same way I did when I
was a schoolgirl."