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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

"I heard my name," Zola says now. "I knew who they were booing. It was the largest crowd I had ever run in front of, and certainly the nastiest."

She led for a while, then slowed almost to a crawl and finished seventh, the medals going, in order, to Puica, Sly and Lynn Williams of Canada.

"I could have gotten a medal," Zola says, "but I just couldn't face getting on the victory stand and getting booed again. My mother was there."

Instead, she finished, headed for the haven of the Coliseum tunnel and approached Decker, offering an apology, even though she wasn't sure she had done anything wrong and, years later, Decker would absolve her of blame.

With dozens of reporters nearby, Decker uttered the two words to Budd that further fueled the controversy.

"Don't bother," she said.

Thousands of miles from home, and figurative light years from the comfort and familiarity of the farms fields of Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, Zola Budd's life had become an international cause celebre.

They whisked her onto a bus, away from the Coliseum and eventually off to her mother's hotel, where she could stay in semi-hiding. For two days, she watched TV and waited for her flight back to England.

"I ate a lot of Haagen Dazs ice cream," she says.

Then, a car showed up and took her, with full police escort, to LAX, where she was convoyed directly onto the tarmac and let out at the airplane's steps.

"I'll never forget that," she says. "They just wanted to get rid of me, but it was kind of neat, like being in an L.A. movie."

When she arrived in London, there had been a death threat. One report said it had come from the U.S.

A couple of weeks later, she was also gone from England and back in South Africa, although she had to return and live in England six months of the year to retain her citizenship and competition opportunities. She remained estranged from her father for the rest of his life, not even visiting his grave until last year, 19 years after he died of a gunshot wound from a man who accused Frank Budd of making a sexual advance.

"Right after the Olympics, I needed to get away from everything, get the Daily Mail off my back," she says. "I needed to go back to South Africa and start life over again."

Now, still not much bigger than her Olympic running weight, but 25 years older, she can look back with both fondness and perspective.

"One thing I will never forget," she says, "is the girl on the bus when we left the Coliseum. She was one of the British runners, a black girl, and she was crying. I asked her why, and she said, 'I'm crying for what happened to you.' It was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me."

She says that the reality of the race -- stripping away the favored media story line of the pretty American versus the barefoot South African teenage waif -- was that Puica had the best time coming in and was going to win, no matter what.

"If you wake Mary up in the middle of the night and ask her that," Zola says, "she'd tell you she knew she wasn't going to win the gold."

Zola also says her own perception of that moment and its significance is vastly different from the place it holds in track-and-field history.

"What happened that night with Mary was a kind of divine intervention," Zola says. "It showed me that I shouldn't have been there and so much of all that was wrong. So much else has happened in my personal life --my dad, my husband leaving me for a while, my mom dying -- that that race doesn't dominate me."

Little remembered is that she ran again in the Olympics. Sanctions against South Africa were lifted before the Barcelona games, and Budd, then 26, failed to qualify in the 3,000. In the four years after the L.A. Olympics, she competed internationally for Britain and won the world cross-country championships in 1985 and '86.

After marriage, her pregnancies took her away from running for several years, but now she's back, and winning various road races around South Carolina. She even competed in last fall's New York City Marathon, finishing in just under three hours, despite struggling mightily the last few miles.

"I was seeing dead people there for a while," she says.

Zola Budd Pieterse's children have seen films of her race with Decker, but she has never cared to.

"My oldest daughter asked my mother about it one time, and she showed it to them," Zola says. "I wasn't happy about that."

She says she has been back to Los Angeles twice since the 1984 Olympics, but it never occurred to her to visit the Coliseum.

"I went shopping," she says.

Her rambling brick home, sitting between two small lakes and looking out onto clumps of forest, contains no shrines to an athletic career and the signature moment that brought her fame.

There is only one picture of her as a runner, in her bedroom.

"I use it to inspire me to get up in the morning and run," she says.

Twenty-five years later, much has changed. And one thing never will.


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