Zola Budd achieved fame at the peak of her career, but for entirely the wrong reason.
If she is remembered at all today, it’s probably because she ran barefoot, and was involved in the unfortunate tripping incident at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which involved her and US runner Mary Decker.
Budd’s life at that time was mired in controversy. She was South African by birth, so could not have competed in the games due to the international boycott of South Africa in place at that time. But her father was persuaded by many people, notably with the backing of the Daily Mail newspaper, to get her to apply for British Citizenship. He did so on the rather nebulous grounds that her grandfather was British.
The public and media pressure on the government was so strong that her citizenship was granted immediately. However, those campaigning for an end to apartheid protested the special treatment she had received. They pointed out, quite correctly, that other applicants frequently had to wait for years to be granted citizenship, if at all.
The fact that she was an outstanding runner, and could well win medals for Great Britain, was likely a strongly influential element in the decision.
Mary Decker, running for the US team, was the favorite to win the 3000 meters against a strong field which included Zola Budd. However, in circumstances that are disputed to this day, the two of them collided and Decker fell, and withdrew from the race. Budd only managed to finish in seventh place.
Since that Olympics disaster, Zola Budd has still maintained her connection to running in various ways. She moved from South Africa to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where she has lived for the past five years operating an elementary and middle school running program.
Budd received a special invitation to the HBCU Challenge 5K race, a competition for college runners. This time, she did not run barefoot, and she won the race – against a field of 106 participants – in 17 minutes and 47 seconds, a massive 50 seconds ahead of the next runner.
Commenting on her win, she said, “I haven’t been running under 18 minutes for quite a while so I’m pleased.”
When asked for advice that she would give to younger runners, she said: “Running is just a part of your life, not your (whole) life … Whatever happens, it’s fine. Just go along with the flow. Take the bad runs with the good runs. Make an experience of it. Don’t be too goal-oriented.”
And where is 55-year-old Mary Decker today? Unfortunately, running took its toll on Mary, and she suffered a series of stress related fractures. She had surgery, but that just worsened the situation. So she retired with her husband to their farm in Oregon, where she now jogs every other day.
Interesting that the lives of Zola Budd and Mary Decker turned out so differently.