Villains in the world of track and field are rare. Turning fans and/or competitors against you typically requires doing one thing: cheating. But for young Zola Budd at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, there was no cheating. There was no boisterous verbal sparring with her media-created rival, American Mary Decker. All it took was a racing error on Decker's part to turn Budd into one of the most despised athletes in America - at the ripe old age of 18.
In the 3,000-meter finals, Budd, the bare-footed South African runner competing for Great Britain, took the lead over Decker with less than one mile to go. Decker tripped as she clipped the back of Budd's foot and fell to the ground, earning the dreaded DNF. Budd meanwhile struggled to seventh place amidst a loud chorus of boos from the mostly American crowd. Budd was initially disqualified but that was overturned when replayed showed the contact was incidental. That one moment that became the defining moment for two of the greatest middle distance runners in the world is expertly addressed in Shola Lynch's "Nine for IX" documentary "Runner."
At the time, that moment meant very little to me. I was nine years old. But it resonated with me later in life as I, too, experienced something similar. In my freshman year of high school, I went to slingshot past a runner in the final stretch of the 800 meters, but the runner swerved in lanes 1 and 2 to prevent me from passing. Our legs got tangled and I earned my own DNF. While the results were the same as Decker, DNF, the motives certainly were not. An inferior runner used cheap racing tactics to prevent me from winning. Zola Budd had dominant position out front and made a slight step to the inside that caused Decker to make contact. It was clearly unintentional as there was no move of Decker's she was trying to block. She was just an 18-year-old kid running the biggest race of her life with millions of Americans rooting against her.
The greatness of Mary Decker-Slaney will never be debated. She still holds most American middle distance records, while also earning the distinction of being one of the greatest middle distance runners in America while still in middle school in the 1970s. But what defined her were her actions following the fall, blaming Budd for her fortunes when, in fact, the entire blame fell on Decker. Instead of commanding the race from start to finish as she normally did, she followed her coach's advice and gave up the lead to Budd. After all, Decker had the superior finishing speed. But the pace was a bit slower and Decker was caught on the inside in a pack of four. Had Decker run the race she had always run, she likely would've finished with the gold medal she never won.
But what about Budd? The teenager quietly left the country and resumed her running career, a career that saw her beaten repeatedly by Decker the following year. Despite those losses, she continued to have success and set a variety of records, but no one remembers Budd for her records or finishes. Everyone remembers her for that other person that didn't finish nearly 30 years ago. Fortunately for the unfairly attacked Budd, her story has a happy ending.
Earlier this month, the now 48-year-old Budd won the HBCU Challenge 5K in Cary, N.C., in a time of 17 minutes, 47 seconds. That was 50 seconds faster than the closest competitor in a field of 106, consisting mostly of college runners more than half her age. Budd, now living in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is far removed from her Olympic days, but it doesn't mean those days are completely over for her. Budd's daughter, Lisa Pieterse, has been dominating the high school cross-country circuit in the Carolinas.
At a recent meet at Coastal Carolina University, Pieterse won her race in 18 minutes, 35 seconds, breaking the course record of 20:07 and winning by nearly three minutes. Out of the 165 high school runners that competed that day, combining boys and girls, only two ran faster times. And when Division I and II collegiate girls competed later that day, once again, only two were faster than the latest budding star in the Budd-Pieterse family.