Zola Budd and the Lecture on Winning

A long ago controversy

There was an article in yesterday’s Guardian about the forthcoming Sky Atlantic documentary, The Fall, all about the infamous incident in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the Golden Girl, the hot favourite mile-runner, Mary Decker, tripped over the legs of the British representative, fell and was out of the race. That runner was Zola Budd.

Let us, for the benefit of those not around in 1984, recap the case of Zola Budd.

Miss Budd, was a successful middle- and long-distance runner, who set a world record for the Women’s 5,000 metres at the age of 17. A self-taught runner, she was a small and slight figure who was also notable for running in bare feet. Unfortunately, she was South African.

This being long before the demise of apartheid, Miss Budd’s record was not officially recognised, South Africa being formally excluded from international sport. Nor could the young lady appear in the 1984 Olympics, taking place only a month or so after her 18th birthday.

Until, that is, the Daily Mail stepped in. Miss Budd had a British grandmother, entitling her to a British passport and qualification for the Olympics as part of the British team. Of itself, this would not have raised many eyebrows – after all, English cricket had already availed itself of several South African cricketers in the Test team. However, whilst the likes of Alan Lamb, Chris and Robin Smith were patient enough to go through the system, involving three years residence in England without representing their native country, the Olympics were more than imminent. Miss Budd could quite easily qualify for a British passport, but she couldn’t get it in time for Los Angeles.

Or could she?

The first that the non-athletics following public heard of Zola Budd was when the Daily Mail started a campaign to rush through her naturalisation.

There was an immediate furore. Zola Budd was being given favourable treatment – massively favourable treatment – at a time when ordinary people, people without sporting ability, people who were not white and did not come from a country that repressed its majority black population – had no option but to go through the channels. And, let’s be clear about this, the only reason Zola Budd was being skated through the system in this manner, was to be carpet-bagged into the British UK Olympic Squad – at the expense of a native-born athlete who had put in her time qualifying. She was being brought in to game the system, to add a ringer to the team in a manner that, whilst legal under international law, demonstrated a lack of moral principles.

It was a disgraceful step to be taken on behalf of a country that still prided itself as being above the tricks and cheats employed by others.

The Labour Party were high on the list of those opposed to this flagrant bending of the rules. This brought out the sheer fury of the Mail, who slammed the the Left in a full-page, headline rant, accusing them of resenting success, being against winning, and calling them every name under the sun. Even at that (relatively) young age, I could spot the angry defensiveness of someone who knows that the hand behind their back is in the cookie jar up to the shoulder.

Miss Budd’s naturalisation went through in time, and she was selected for the Olympics after setting an officially recognised World Record time.

The story reached its conclusion in the Womens 3,000 metre final, which the press billed as a duel between Zola Budd and the World Champion, American Mary Decker. The race had run just about 1,700 meters when Budd’s left leg came into slight contact with Decker’s thigh. Budd stumbled slightly, into Decker’s path: five strides later, the two collided again. Decker’s spiked show drew blood from Budd’s ankle, but it was the former who lost balance and fell, injuring her hip and being forced out of the race.

Budd continued to the end, but only came seventh.

The collision with Decker was a massive controversy, with blame for the incident being apportioned initially on national lines: the American press blamed Budd, the British press defended her. Later, Decker made it clear that the collision was an accident, and not the fault of Budd, though by then this wasn’t being publicised to the same extent.

At the time, I admit, I found it hilarious. All that cheating and conniving and rule-bending and preferential treatment at the expense of ordinary people, and it blows up in Britain’s face (and that of the Daily Mail). How could you not laugh? Rarely is the outcome of such underhand sneakery so karmically perfect.

Now, in anticipation of the forthcoming documentary, here is Zola Budd, thirty-two years on, spilling the truth. Actually, it’s not new news, Budd having spilled the truth in her autobiography, years ago, but as I have no interest in athlete’s autobiographies, I unacccountably failed to discover this before now. The truth now being acknowledged, is that after Decker fell out of the race, Zola Budd – the girl being hyped into Britain as a winner, and f*ck the Labour Party – deliberately slowed down to make sure she didn’t win the race. Nor even the bronze medal.

Because she couldn’t face the thought of being on the podium and being booed by the crowd.

And I cannot help but think of that accusatory Daily Mail front page, with its vicious castigation of its political opponents and losers and cowards, and I cannot help but appreciate the richness of the irony that their little girl winner turned out to be exactly that.

Yet, in relishing the way that the tables were turned on these vicious right wingers, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Zola Budd herself, pity that I wasn’t capable of feeling in 1984. She was every bit as much a victim of the circumstances as everyone else: a shy teenager, brought up on the veldt, not even used to running in crowds and brought to England as the puppet of unscrupulous glory-hunters.

When Decker fell, it would have taken tremendous strength of character, strength that she can’t be blamed for not possessing, little girl alone, separated from her family, unwillingly controversial for what she was, a pawn placed in the middle of someone else’s battle, a world-spanning battle. I can romp in the glory of the Mail‘s pretentions being exposed so brutally, but the woman at the centre of this should never have been placed in that position, and she was made the scapegoat for nothing more than naivete.

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