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Legends of the Fall

Slaney and Budd became more famous for their mid-race collision than if either one had won a medal

August 08, 2004|Bill Plaschke | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — In a suburban mall at lunchtime, a woman pushes back her blond hair and sighs.

"It was a living nightmare," she says.

In a South African farmhouse around bedtime, another woman lowers her voice and sighs.

"It was my worst nightmare come true," she says.

Twenty years later, Mary Decker and Zola Budd finally agree on something.


It was a bigger fall than any in an Olympic wrestling match. It made a bigger splash than any in an Olympic pool.

On Aug. 10, 1984, it reduced the Olympics' five rings to three, a veritable circus featuring high-wire conspiracies, elephantine jealousies and plenty of clowns.

It lasted only a couple of seconds. Yet it has remained with the women involved -- and the millions who watched them -- for two decades.

For all its smooth rides, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics might be best remembered for the crash.

"It was so big, the only thing I can compare it to is, Shaquille O'Neal being traded," remembers Bruce Tenen, international track and field historian.

Well, maybe, but only if O'Neal had tripped Kobe Bryant on the way out of town.

It went like this: About halfway through the 3,000-meter women's final at the Coliseum, barefoot leader Zola Budd veered slightly into the path of charging Mary Decker, who tripped over Budd's legs, fell to the track and out of the race.

Twenty years later, one might say, "What's the big deal? Collisions happen all the time, right? Heck, it even happened earlier in the same race with American Joan Hansen hitting the track near the back, correct?"

Yes, but with Decker and Budd, it was more than a tangle of runners, it was a collision of worlds.

Decker was America's female sports sweetheart, the best female runner in this country's history, an Orange County-raised, 26-year-old star who had won every possible honor except an Olympic medal.

Budd was everyone else's sweetheart, an 18-year-old South African with legendary times in backwoods events who had navigated a loophole to become a British citizen after her home country had been banned from the Olympics.

They had never raced each other. They had never even met. Yet because the sports media need rivals, they were cast as the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Decker, now known by her married name, Mary Slaney, laughed during a recent interview at a mall near her longtime Eugene home."I had never even heard the name Zola Budd until that spring, when we saw this story about her on TV," she remembers.

Budd, now known by her married name, Zola Pieterse, also laughed during a phone interview from her South African home.

"Mary was the biggest thing in America," she said. "She was one of my heroes. I was just a kid."

Budd, in fact, even had a poster of Decker on her bedroom wall. But the sports world was more interested in their differences.

Decker ran with a scowl. Budd ran with no shoes.

Decker was a headstrong world champion. Budd was a curly-haired, inexperienced child.

By the time they began the race, the two women had been turned into such cartoon characters that what happened on the fourth lap of a 7 1/2 -lap race not only stretched credibility but also made perfect sense.

Headstrong met curly haired. Fate met fable. Decker spiked Budd's heel, stumbled and ripped off Budd's number as she fell to the ground.

Says Slaney: "It was surreal. It was like, you just want to wake up from it all."

Says Pieterse: "It was sad for me, it was devastating for Mary. It was her chance to be the gold girl of U.S. athletics."

Even more unbelievable, perhaps, was what happened next.

While Decker lay on the ground, wailing in pain, Budd kept running amid a chorus of boos, openly weeping and eventually falling back to a seventh-place finish in her worst official 3,000 time.

Says Slaney: "I was in shock. This was going to be the year I won an Olympic medal. My year."

Says Pieterse: "I was emotionally exhausted, so exhausted."

This being, perhaps, TV's first juicy prime-time reality show, the end of the race was the beginning of another little drama.

Walking away afterward, Budd tried to apologize, but Decker blew her off, saying, "Don't bother, I don't want to talk to you."

Later that night at a news conference, Decker put all the blame on Budd, saying, "Zola Budd tried to cut in without being basically ahead. Her foot upset me.... I do hold her responsible."

And so did most of the sports world ... until it read those comments.

To the average fan, what initially seemed like understandable pain started to sound like intolerable whining.

To the track experts who examined the tape, it became obvious that nobody was at fault.

"Zola's lack of knowledge may have caused the accident, but Mary trying to sneak by on the inside, that wasn't smart either," said Tenen, who witnessed the incident.

So it wasn't about a feud, it was about human frailty, which didn't make good press, but was the truth.

Twenty years later, the two women finally seem at peace with that truth.

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