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Zola Budd's in L.A., and she's not out trotting for pre-race hype

She will be in the Keep L.A. Running charity event at Playa del Rey, her first time running here since colliding with Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics.

July 10, 2010|Bill Dwyre

The wisp of a woman, whose story we seem incapable of taking beyond a fall on a track 26 years ago, is back in town.

In this age of media noise and shallow perceptions, her return could be amped up into a big headline or a teaser to the evening news: "Zola Budd returns to race in Los Angeles."

That would be accurate. Its implications would not be.

Her name is Zola Budd Pieterse now. She is 44, and moved from her native South Africa to live the last two years in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with her husband and three children. Her residence work visa has been extended and she may stay a year or two more.

She comes to L.A. mostly because Al and Don Franken remain among the more persuasive event promoters around, and because their Keep L.A. Running charity event Sunday at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey gives her a chance to get away and do what she loves most.


"I love L.A.," she says, needing no prompting from Randy Newman. "This isn't about coming full circle or any kind of closure. That was always a bigger thing for everybody else than me."

She says that "since that day" she has been here a couple of times but has gone shopping or done tourist things.

"This will be the first time I've run here since then," she says, shrugging to indicate there is no special reason for that, either. "I've never been back to the track. I probably won't go this time."

"That day" was Friday, Aug. 10, 1984, at the Summer Olympics, the 3,000-meter women's final. The best runner was Romanian Maricica Puica. The local favorite was Southern California's multiple world champion Mary Decker. But the most buzz was about an 18-year-old from South Africa, competing for England under a controversial citizenship grant, who weighed less than 100 pounds, had turned in several world-class times and ran barefoot.

The Little Mary versus Little Zola pre-race hype wasn't quite "LeBron-makes-his-decision" — will anything ever be that overblown again? — but it had the attention of Olympic fans.

Then Mary and Zola tangled, and Mary fell and shrieked in agony and frustration. Puica did what she was going to do anyway, which was win, and a shy and overwhelmed Budd, booed by a Coliseum crowd that wrongly perceived she was to blame for the incident, throttled back to seventh place because she wanted no part of a spot on a victory stand amid more boos.

At that moment, Decker and Budd were forever joined. Their lives have gone on. They have corresponded since then, even talked a couple of times. They are friendly, but not friends.

One sad result is that the real Zola Budd, the pole-thin schoolgirl who grew up on a South African farm and ran out of both joy and sorrow, is much less known.

"My best days of running, even in recent years," she says, "are on the farm back home. On some days, you can see forever, and the only sound you hear is your feet hitting the ground."

She talks about almost stepping on poisonous snakes along her running path, and she smiles. She talks about animals she has seen along the way. She knows what image that presents for Americans, and so she says, with a twinkle in her eye, "When you are chased by a wild animal, you only have to be the second-slowest person in the group."

Oh, yes, and her favorite movie: "The Lion King."

She didn't run to compete as much as she ran because it was something she could do.

She didn't run to compete as much as she did to find shelter and solace after the death of her older sister, Jenny, who had been her best friend and main sanctuary. Most children's first words are "mommy or daddy." Budd's first word was "Jenny."

She didn't run to compete at all, until her father saw the financial potential of her speed and she ended up in front of that booing Coliseum crowd.

Now, she runs to run. The winner of Sunday's women's 10K will get $250. And though she once ran a 10K of 31 minutes 43 seconds in her prime — a full four minutes better than any woman has run this race in its 17 years and better than all but two of the male 10K winners — she expects to be closer to 37-38 minutes Sunday.

Zola Budd Pieterse still runs every day. Sometimes it is around her suburban neighborhood, sometimes on the grass inside the track at Coastal Carolina University, where she is a volunteer assistant coach.

On Sunday, she will run along a course with a constant ocean view. The Coliseum will be 15 miles or so to the east, and nowhere in her mind.

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