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Zola Budd still runs, but not from the past

She doesn't let her signature moment -- tangling with Mary Decker at 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles -- define her, as she raises her family in South Carolina and still trains and competes.

August 10, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Zola Budd has reached the point in her life where she can take her Los Angeles Olympic moment of 25 years ago and swirl it like a nicely aged wine. The memory is smooth now, perfectly palatable.

"It's amazing how life works out," she says.

She is Zola Budd Pieterse, 43, the wife of a South African businessman and the mother of three. She lives in Myrtle Beach because, she says, when she reached age 40, she decided she wanted to compete in some American Masters Class track events and thought her children's ages, twins Mike and Azelle, 11, and Lisa, 13, were right for such an adventure.

Her two-year work visa was approved and she and husband Mike cruised the Internet for the best place to settle. Zola hoped for Arizona, where the heat is both frequent and dry. Mike ran across an ad for Myrtle Beach and its 105 golf courses.

"I was dead," Zola says.

She says she tries to play golf with her husband but doesn't do well.

"Too many broken windows," she says.

Her children go to school, Mike plays golf and travels back and forth to his business of hotel and gas station ownership in South Africa, and Zola handles the dual role of suburban housewife and semi-competitive runner. Three or four days a week, she runs twice a day, sometimes as much as 10 miles on each run, and does so by winding her way around the woods and lakes that make up her neighborhood.

Most likely, the neighbors have no idea of the identity and fame of the tiny woman who just flashed past while they ate breakfast.

"I'm sure not going to bring it up," Zola says.

The "it" was one of those moments that remain in the scrapbook of Olympic fans forever.

It was the second Friday night of the Los Angeles Olympics, and the feature of the evening was the matchup in the women's 3,000 meters between America's running sweetheart, Mary Decker, and the controversial South African-turned-Brit Zola Budd.

Decker had grown from the pig-tailed phenom out of Long Beach into the world-class runner who had moved to Oregon and dominated women's middle-distance running at the 1983 World Games, winning both the 1,500 and 3,000.

Budd, barely 18, had grown up running barefoot through fields on a South African farm and kept right on going into international prominence with some of the top times in the world. On Jan. 5, 1984, Budd surpassed Decker's world 5,000 record by more than six seconds.

As the 1984 Olympics approached, she was doomed to be a non-starter, because her country, scorned for its apartheid system, was banned from the Games in 1976.

But, as in so many things in sports, greed and self-interest found a way.

"I remember running in a meet in South Africa," Zola says, "and having my dad bring a couple of men over to me afterward. He said something about how these two men were from England, and they were going to take care of everything and we were going to move there and I would run in the Olympics.

"I said, 'Oh, OK.' And that was it."

Eligible because her paternal grandfather was British, Budd and her parents moved to England in March 1984. They were sponsored by a newspaper, the Daily Mail, which readily parlayed its 100,000-pound investment into exclusive access. Within weeks, Budd was made a British citizen, which caused an uproar, and was running races in her new homeland, which brought picketing and protests from those who interpreted her actions, and lack of any statement in opposition to it, as pro-apartheid.

Two weeks before she left for the Olympics, Budd, the youngest of six children, moved out of her family home and became permanently estranged from her father, about whom she later told Sports Illustrated, "Daddy had recognized my commercial value." She also said the Daily Mail made her into "some kind of circus animal."

She told her father, Frank, that she would not compete in the Olympics if he came along. He didn't and she did, with mother Tossie her companion.

The pressure on this tiny teenager was intense.

When she lined up that Aug. 10 for the women's 3,000 meters, there were more than 85,000 people in the Coliseum, most of them focused on Budd and Decker. Budd weighed less than 100 pounds and, as always in competition, would run barefoot. She had never run against Decker, even in the qualifying heat. But she certainly knew which one she was. For years, she had had a picture of Mary Decker on her bedroom wall.

Halfway through the race, Budd took the lead and she, Decker, British teammate Wendy Sly and Romanian Maricica Puica distanced themselves slightly from the pack. Suddenly, Decker bumped one of Budd's legs, seemed to lose her balance, then a few strides later stepped on Budd's heel and tumbled to the infield. Puica, who would eventually win, had to hurdle Decker, down and injured, to avoid falling herself.

It took a minute or so for the huge crowd to realize what had happened. Once it did, the boos rang down.

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