Collision Course: The Olympic Tragedy of Mary Decker and Zola Budd

Fingal Libraries
by Fingal Libraries on August 24, 2016.

Collision Course is a new sports book by Jason Henderson that revisits one of the most controversial incidents in modern Olympic history. The venue was Los Angeles in 1984, the city hosting the Olympics for the second time. The incident involved a disastrous tumble in the 3000 metres women’s final between the favourite, American Mary […]

Collision Course is a new sports book by Jason Henderson that revisits one of the most controversial incidents in modern Olympic history. The venue was Los Angeles in 1984, the city hosting the Olympics for the second time. The incident involved a disastrous tumble in the 3000 metres women’s final between the favourite, American Mary Decker, and British-naturalised runner, 18-year-old Zola Budd. Budd’s presence in the race was itself controversial, as she was born and raised in the central South African city of Bloemfontein in the era of apartheid and international sanctions; she only gained British citizenship in May 1984, in an expedited process. The Daily Mail newspaper had launched a self-styled patriotic campaign to have Budd represent Britain after she broke the world record in a 5000 metres run in South Africa in January 1984. Zola qualified for a British passport as her paternal grandfather was British.

Through pressure from the paper and her father, the family moved to Britain and led a furtive existence for a few months, moving between houses in a glare of publicity and controversy. The book details how opinions were divided about the citizenship process even in government. There were conflicting opinions too in British athletics. Rival newspapers interpreted the Daily Mail’s role in critical terms. Anti-apartheid protestors targeted Budd at athletic meets, where she made herself eligible for Olympic qualification for Britain. The athlete herself was only 5ft 2in tall and very young; her English was basic as she had grown up usually speaking Afrikaans, and she retained her childhood habit of running barefoot.

Budd later described the day she broke the 5000 metres record as the worst day of her life, as it had led to complete upheaval and trauma for her. She gradually became estranged from her father, who squandered a lot of money given him by the Daily Mail. Budd at least found the warm climate of Los Angeles more welcome when she set up camp in late July. She qualified for the 3000 metres final along with Wendy Sly, a British athlete who’d previously voiced reservations about Budd’s eligibility. Romania’s experienced Maricica Puica was also running, but the favourite was American athletic superstar, Mary Decker.

Mary Decker was the foremost women’s distance runner at the time. She had been an athletic prodigy who was in the spotlight as a teen. She had won both the 1500 and 3000 metres titles at the inaugural 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, the same tournament that Ireland’s Eamon Coghlan won gold at in the 5000 metres. But she had also been unlucky in the Olympics. She was injured in 1976 and the US boycotted Moscow 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Eastern Bloc countries instated their boycott for the Los Angeles Games, but Romania and Yugoslavia dissented and sent their athletes. Decker had an injury scare in June and decided to concentrate her efforts on the 3000 metres heats and final, as running the 1500 as well would be exacting.

The final on 11th August 1984 started at a fast pace for the first two laps, but then slowed, and Decker, Budd, Puica, and Sly opened up a gap between themselves and the other eight runners. The four became bunched together and this didn’t suit either Budd or Decker as they were used to leading a race. Running barefoot, Budd later said that Sly’s presence on the outer lane caused her to become hemmed in. As they rounded the bend with three laps to go Decker and Budd made contact and the American runner lost her balance and crashed off the track. Budd stumbled and looked over her shoulder before carrying on. Decker tried to get up but she was injured. Within seconds booing from the partisan crowd began; it became a deafening noise aimed at Budd and clearly affected her performance. Puica pulled away in the last lap to win from Sly, but Zola ran the last lap in a half-hearted fashion, and several other runners overtook her. Lynn Williams of Canada won the bronze medal.

Recriminations began almost immediately. Decker rejected an apology from Budd in the tunnel, and blamed the younger athlete in a tearful press conference. Budd was then disqualified, but was restored after further official study. American commentators who initially blamed her began to change their opinions watching replays. There was soon a backlash against Mary Decker, and her post-race reaction. The book gathers many judgments of the incident from athletes, coaches and observers, and the different perspectives makes for fascinating reading.

Both Budd and Decker ran some of the best races of their careers in 1985, and there was a much hyped and lucrative “rematch” at Crystal Pace, London in July 1985 which Decker won comfortably.  But misfortune afflicted both of them after that. Injuries kept both off the tracks for most of 1987, and diminished their future chances of success. Decker came back for the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, but struggled to compete for a medal. Budd was banned from the Seoul Olympics because she had attended a racing meet in South Africa. She eventually raced for a reinstated South Africa in the 1992 Olympics, but was past her best.

The last part of the book sees Henderson finding the two former athletes to talk to them. Budd now competes in marathons and lengthy ultra-marathons. She is philosophical about her career. Afflicted by past injuries and arthritis, Decker cannot run comfortably and now competes in the unusual sport of elliptical cycling, popular in California. Independently of the book, the two former athletes reconciled for a Sky Atlantic documentary about the fateful race, and also appeared together on the BBC One Show in July. The book is an engrossing read which also explores other controversies and turmoil in their lives. It is about two outstanding runners who were cursed in their quest for Olympic glory.

By Fergus O’ Reilly – Blanchardstown Library

Editor’s note:  “Collision Course” can be reserved today on the Fingal Online Catalogue