Saturday, November 27, 2010

Great Running Performances: Mary Decker vs. Zola Budd: 1984 Olympics, 3,000 Meters.

Great Running Performances:

Mary Decker vs. Zola Budd: 1984 Olympics, 3,000 Meters.

By James Israel                                                 

            Mary Decker competing against Zola Budd in the 3,000-meter final at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles had an inevitable feel to it: two running champions – one from southern California, the other from the hinterlands of South Africa – outdoing each other for months, dominating their sport, and culminating in an Olympic match race.

            The two competitors could not have come from more disparate circumstances.

            Mary Decker was a winner, and a world class runner, very early on. Born in New Jersey, she with her family moved to California, and that became her home base. By 13, she was ranked first in the world at women’s 800 meters; at 14, she won the 800-meters competition in a Russia-US track meet in Minsk. Later that year, she had world record times in women’s 1,000 meters and 800 meters.

            Then, chronic injuries that were to plague her for the rest of her career began: a leg stress fracture would force her out of the 1976 Olympics. Ms. Decker continued to experience a range of leg maladies for the next few years, but by 1982, it appeared she was defiantly healthy again: during that year, she set six world records, from 800 to 10,000 meters. And, despite all her achievements, she was only 23 years old.

            The Los Angeles Olympics beckoned in a couple of years, and she was the heavy favorite to win the 3,000M race. There was seemingly no other woman on the circuit who could offer real competition to her.

            Then, out of the blue, Zola Budd appeared. She was born and raised in South Africa, still under apartheid rule at the time. Running barefoot, Ms. Budd in 1984 broke the world record for the women’s 5,000 – 15:01:83. Finally, Ms. Decker had a worthy opponent. There was one huge problem, though: South Africa’s apartheid racial policies compelled the world to ban the country from Olympic competition. Ms. Budd was essentially banished from international distance running.

            Great Britain, though, came up with a solution: grant Zola Budd British citizenship and she could then compete for England. Sure, it was absolutely a ‘rush’ job, but, no matter, very quickly Ms. Budd was running for good, old Union Jack. Through the din of all the international politics, she continued to excel in competition: in July 1984, she set a world record in a women’s 2,000 meter race.

            The great confrontation in Los Angeles between these two titans, to the delight of track fans everywhere, was finally going to happen.

            Did all the pre-race hoopla pan out? Zola Budd and Mary Decker were certainly central figures, but not in a manner fans predicted:

            Ms. Budd led the 3,000M race through 1,700 meters, followed closely by Ms. Decker and the Rumanian Maricici Puica. Half a stride behind, Mary Decker tapped Ms. Budd’s left foot, throwing Ms. Budd off stride. Maintaining a tight second, Ms. Decker then clipped Ms. Budd’s left calf with her left shoe, as Ms. Budd was attempting to attain a rail position. That collision caused Ms. Decker to stumble, lose her balance, and fall away onto the curb and track infield. She was done – injuring her hip and unable to even get up, she was memorably lifted up by her then discus-throwing boyfriend, Richard Slaney. Zola Budd, obviously distressed at what just happened, and booed loudly by the crowd, faded by the end of the race to 7th. [Ms. Puica won the race.]

            Today, no one can attest with certainly who was to blame for the collision: some say it was Ms. Budd’s fault, others, Ms. Decker’s. In a just world, either of these superb runners should have won that race: Zola Budd living out an irresistible Cinderella storyline, or Mary Decker fighting through a series of devastating injuries. Ironically, though, Mary Decker’s collision with Zola Budd in Los Angeles will always be one of the most memorable events in track history.

From the editor.....

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