Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd

Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd

by Kyle Keiderling


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It remains one of the most memorable moments in modern Olympic history. At the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, a raucous crowd of ninety thousand saw their favorite in the women’s 3,000-meter race, Mary Decker, go down. An audience of two billion around the world witnessed the mishap and listened to the instantaneous accusations against the suspected culprit, Zola Budd.

Just seventeen, the South African Budd had already been the target of a vicious and vocal campaign by the antiapartheid lobby after she transferred to the British team in order to compete at the games. Decker, at twenty-six, was America’s golden girl, ready to overcome years of bad luck and injuries to rightfully take the Olympic gold for which she had waited so long. With three laps to go, Decker and Budd’s feet became tangled. Decker went down and didn’t get up, wailing in primal agony as her gold medal hopes vanished. Decker’s stumbles continued in the race’s aftermath when she refused Budd’s apology and race officials found her, not Budd, at fault for the collision. Although both women found success after the Olympics, neither could escape the long shadow of the infamous event that forever changed both of their lives and defines them in popular culture to this day.

Olympic Collision follows Decker and Budd through their lives and careers, telling the story behind the controversy; the account that emerges is certain to revise the view Americans, in particular, have held since that fateful day in Los Angeles more than thirty years ago. Olympic Collision relives one of the most famous incidents in Olympic history, its legacy, and what has happened to both athletes since.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290846
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,292,282
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Kyle Keiderling is the author of five books, including Heart of a Lion: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Hank Gathers.

Read an Excerpt

Olympic Collision

The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd

By Kyle Keiderling


Copyright © 2016 Kyle Keiderling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9650-3


Starting Line

She was the most motivated and talented runner I have ever seen.

— Don DeNoon on the eleven-year-old Mary Decker

Mary Decker entered the world on August 4, 1958, in a delivery room at the Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey, about ten miles from the home of her parents, John and Jacqueline Decker, in the tiny crossroads village of Bunnvale. The birth certificate recorded her full name as Mary Teresa Decker. The birth was unremarkable, and Jacqueline and her newborn daughter soon returned to Bunnvale.

Mary would spend her first ten years in a peaceful, bucolic area of the nation's most densely populated state. People in Bunnvale knew their neighbors, and they rarely locked their doors. The four-season climate could produce hot humid summers and bitterly cold winters, but the residents took it all in stoic stride. No parkway or turnpike was then in sight, and many roads in the county were still dirt. The low rolling hills, heavily forested, surrounded acres of farmland under cultivation. Poultry and dairy farms were prevalent, and fields of golden hay, Jersey tomatoes, and tall sweet corn were arrayed in checkerboard patterns throughout. Hunterdon County was bisected by the waters of the South Branch of the Raritan River and bordered on the west by the Delaware River as it made its way eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean, about fifty miles away.

About equidistant from Philadelphia and New York, Hunterdon was one of the least populated of the state's twenty-one counties. With fewer than one hundred thousand people, it had as yet no major shopping malls. Flemington, the county seat, had a population of about four thousand. The medical center where Mary was born had been constructed only a few years earlier through a massive countywide fund-raising effort.

* * *

Mary attended public school in Lebanon Township. In the late 1950s five county high schools accepted students on a geographic basis. Lebanon sent its students to North Hunterdon Regional High School in Annandale. Although in later years the school would produce outstanding track and cross-country teams — boasting several outstanding women runners — at the time, no high schools in the county offered track as a sport, and there were no women's track teams.

In 1968, when Mary was ten, her parents decided to leave Hunterdon County and join the many others from around the United States who were making the move to Southern California. The Deckers — John, Jacqueline, their son, Johnny, and their three daughters — became part of a massive influx of people that saw Orange County become one of the nation's fastest-growing areas in the 1960s and 1970s. The climate was pleasant, jobs were plentiful, and housing affordable. To keep up with the demand for housing, builders in the county, which is south of Los Angeles, were bulldozing as fast as they could the orange groves from which the county derived its name. Before they settled in Garden Grove, the Deckers lived for eight months in Santa Ana and for two years in Huntington Beach.

The move, prompted by her mother's desire to join other family members in the area, would prove to be fortuitous. Had Mary Decker remained in Bunnvale and environs, she would not have had an opportunity to develop as a runner: she was born in the wrong place at the wrong time for aspiring young female runners. Had the Deckers stayed in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, it is unlikely we would ever have heard of Mary. Southern California, on the other hand, was arguably the best place a young female runner could be in the United States.

* * *

Soon after John and Jacqueline made the move west, their marriage headed south.

John was not the dominant influence in his daughter's life. "My father is a very quiet person. My mother is a very unquiet one. The atmosphere [at home] was dominated by my mother," Mary would say in later years. However, John had an adventurous streak. A tool-and-die maker by training, he once used his mechanical skills to construct a homemade gyro helicopter, which he flew — and crashed. He also loved to race around on motorcycles, hardly a safer pastime. Mary, riding behind her father when she was twelve, fell off and fractured her skull. The injury resulted in a year of physical therapy and another scare when she resumed running too soon and began to hemorrhage. That was the end of her motorcycle runs with John.

Jackie disapproved of John's hobbies and daredevil antics. And as her marriage crumbled, she grew increasingly unhappy about her circumstances. Her oldest daughter told Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated in 1978: "They stayed together for the sake of the kids. It was the biggest mistake they ever made — besides getting married in the first place. They were never close, as long as I can remember."

While working as a bartender in a watering hole close to the Orange County courthouse, Mary's mother began to seek counsel from the barristers who bellied up to her bar. As she poured them martinis, she poured out her tale of woe. And while they imbibed, she sopped up the spilled gin and free advice.

* * *

When Mary was eleven, she and a girlfriend of the same age spotted a flyer announcing a cross-country event in a nearby park: "We didn't know what 'cross-country' was, but we decided to go," she said. They discovered upon arrival it was a running event, and they both entered. "My friend dropped out, but I won," she recalled years later.

In winning her very first race, with no training or preparation whatsoever, Mary Decker displayed a raw talent that would become the foundation for the greatest career of any female middle-distance runner America has ever produced.


First Steps

Running is the perfect metaphor for life. You get out of it just what you put into it.

— Oprah Winfrey

Eight years after Mary Decker arrived on the planet, and eight thousand miles away in a hospital in Bloemfontein, in South Africa's Free State Province, a woman lay dangerously close to dying. She had been in labor for almost thirty-six hours and had received thirteen pints of blood. Finally, blessedly, she was delivered of a daughter by emergency Caesarean section on May 26, 1966.

Fearing the infant had suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation, nurses and doctors quickly carried the child — undersize, despite being full term — to an incubator to monitor her condition. Her mother also remained under close observation in intensive care, drifting in and out of consciousness for several days after the delivery. Not until her child was six days old was she was able to hold her in her arms. She recalls that the infant was "a tiny little thing." However, the newborn, despite her difficult arrival and diminutive size, was healthy and showed no ill effects from her traumatic delivery. The staff at Bloemfontein's National Hospital watched as the infant thrived and soon were calling her "the miracle baby."

Her father chose her name. Had she been a boy, it was to have been Zero. Since the baby was a girl, he decided instead on Zola, after the nineteenth-century French writerÉmile Zola, whose work Père Budd admired.

Zola Budd's difficult arrival in the world foretold her later life.

* * *

When the baby finally left the hospital, she came home to a single-story, white stucco house with a red corrugated roof; it was on a red dirt road just off Route 30, about seven miles outside Bloemfontein — a bustling old city of nearly four hundred thousand located on a high plateau about four thousand feet above sea level, in an area known as the veldt. In addition to the substantial house, the small farmstead included a menagerie of ducks and chickens, which Zola's father, Frank, raised with pride, along with a few ostriches and several dogs and cats. In a small vegetable garden in the back, her mother, called Tossie, grew fresh produce for her home-based catering business.

The Budd family was comprised of the oldest sister, Jenny, who was eleven; nine-year-old Estelle; and twins Quintus and Cara, five. The Budds had had another child, Frankie, who was born in March 1960 with a liver ailment. The prognosis for survival, despite frequent medical care in Johannesburg, where the infant underwent several operations, was poor. When Tossie brought him home for the final time, she knew Frankie's struggles would soon end. He died on New Year's Day 1961, five years before Zola arrived. Pictures of the little boy were on display in nearly every room, making the palpable sadness of the loss ever present in the house. The parents never spoke of him to the other children, and discussions about him and his death were off-limits.

After the difficult delivery of Zola, Tossie, born Hendrina Wilhelmina de Swardt, to a Boer farming family, remained in the hospital until she was well enough to be discharged. But the experience had left her weakened and ill, so Zola's oldest sister, Jenny, assumed responsibility for the little girl's care. When the toddler spoke her first word, Jenny heard it: Mommy.

* * *

Frank Budd, tall and balding, with muttonchop whiskers, had inherited a printing business in Bloemfontein from his father, who had immigrated to South Africa from England in the early 1900s. It was never a particularly profitable enterprise, however, and sales continued to decline as Zola grew older. Tossie supplemented their income through her catering business. Zola recalls being "up to my elbows in mayonnaise in the kitchen" as her mother and the few assistants the family could afford prepared an order.

Bloemfontein (the Dutch word means "fountain of flowers"; the city's nickname is City of Roses) was settled by the Boers, who first arrived among the indigenous people of the future South Africa in the late 1600s. With a dry temperate climate conducive to agriculture, by the mid-nineteenth century the town had matured as the focal point of the thriving farmlands that surrounded it. The land around Zola's home was rural and spotted with small farms. The farmers raised potatoes and corn, and cattle farms were prevalent. The veldt, or grassland, was a gently undulating plain that stretched for miles in every direction, though mountains could be glimpsed on the far horizon. The days were sun splashed and warm, and the bright blue of the sky seemed to span the land like an endless azure canopy. The rains that rolled in on angry black clouds each summer were a welcome sight in the afternoons of baking hot days. "You could actually smell the rain before it arrived," Zola remembered.

* * *

The young Zola Budd first experienced the joy of running with the eighteen-year-old Jenny, who introduced her to it when Zola was about seven. The two would ramble off for miles together, romping barefoot through the low grass and along dirt paths in the countryside. Those early runs with her sister Jenny, including frequent trips down Route 30 into Bloemfontein and through its many parks, would remain in Zola's memory as the happiest of her life.

Frank Budd shuttled his family from farmstead to city and back for the first ten years or so of his youngest daughter's life. The constant moving created problems for Zola once she began school: she was always the new kid, and her innate shyness, small size, and quiet demeanor meant she made few fast friends in her early years. Thus, despite her parents' growing marital difficulties, home was where Zola was happiest. Among her pet dogs and cats and the other farm animals she was accepted, safe, and secure.

One of her earliest friends on the farm was the child of one of the women who came to the house to help Tossie. The boy's name was Thipe, and together the two explored the land in and around the farm, playing all the games young children enjoy. But the relationship ended when the Budds moved back to the city. Thipe was black, and the camaraderie they enjoyed out in the countryside was not permitted in Bloemfontein — or indeed anywhere else in South Africa. Apartheid was still the law of the land, and such associations were not acceptable. But Zola learned a different lesson from this friendship, and as she later put it, "My relationship with Thipe taught me, early on, that the color of a person's skin is not what's important."

But the government of her country had determined that it was precisely the color of a person's skin that set him or her apart from others. The failure of others to distinguish Zola Budd's thoughts and actions from those of her government would play a large role in determining how she was perceived in the eyes of the world.

* * *

In essence, during her early formative years, Zola led a sheltered life. Perhaps because of the loss of Frankie, the family was extremely protective of their youngest child, who was generally coddled and treated with utmost care by her siblings and parents, though both Frank and Tossie were kept busy with their own lives and business ventures.

And Zola always had Jenny. She ran with Jenny, shared her fears and concerns with Jenny. Jenny was always there for her and always would be. While their parents' marriage grew increasingly fragile, and their squabbles more and more frequent, Jenny was the one safe harbor in the home for Zola — her surrogate mother, her anchor, and her best friend. No matter what was going on in Zola's young world, she could count on Jenny to make everything right. But of course Jenny, who was tall and attractive, with dark hair and eyes and a ready smile, was growing up as well. By the time Zola was ten, Jenny was twenty-one and a newly married nurse with her own home outside Bloemfontein, although she was not far away.

Zola was in the early years of primary school in Bloemfontein — attending her third school, in fact, since her education began — when she first competed against others. At the annual race meeting, she was urged to try a longer-distance race against her schoolmates. "It was a three-lap event of 1,200 meters and Daddy, who was there, encouraged me to try it. 'Come on Zola, give it a go.' I was not really that interested. I had only been running in sprints and had just finished running a sprint and a relay race and was not at all sure I could last the three laps. I won by miles," she recalled. For her, running was little more than an extended recess activity she was good at and enjoyed. Though her father continued to encourage her, she was just as interested in books as she was in running: "I would go into town with my mother on her weekly shopping trips, and I saved all my allowance money so I could purchase books in town."

Surrounded by her books and stuffed animals inside, and her pets outside, Zola was happy and content on the farm. At school, however, she was not. Her father had determined that Zola, unlike her older sisters, would attend Oranje Meisieskool, a private school for girls from the upper class — a social stratum Frank had convinced himself befitted his family and his ambitions. But the attempt to turn the tomboyish Zola into a prim and proper young lady soon fizzled. Among girls from wealthy families, the decidedly middle-class Zola, sometimes arriving for classes in her mother's battered old pickup truck, was embarrassed and increasingly uncomfortable: "I really didn't fit in with the other girls."

Placed among the top-level students, the new kid — now in her fourth school — looked and felt out of place. She complained to her mother about the school and the bad dreams she was having because of it. Her marks, for the first time, were poor. She hated it. Making her even more miserable was some surgery to remove a small bone from her arches. The surgery was performed over the Christmas holidays, and Zola, both feet encased in plaster casts, was definitely not feeling the holiday spirit.

Jenny roused Zola from her blue funk. Jenny understood Zola best. They had shared a bedroom, and Jenny had taught Zola to swim and to run. Zola always turned to Jenny, not her parents, for strength, guidance, and love. Jenny had never failed her, and with her sister's stern but gentle urging, Zola soon was back on her surgically repaired feet — and back on the track.

* * *

When her mother arrived to pick Zola up one afternoon a short time later, Tossie had with her a uniform of the coed Dan Pienaar school, where Zola's sister Cara was enrolled. The uniform was for Zola, to her surprise. Tossie had persuaded Frank that their daughter was out of place at the snobbish Oranje Meisieskool, and the finishing school experiment was finally, well, finished. Zola joined Cara at Dan Pienaar.

The following year, at thirteen, Zola advanced to Sentraal Secondary School (the equivalent of high school in the United States), where she soon encountered a young history teacher, Pieter Labuschagne, who also served as Sentraal's athletics coach.

Dark haired and mustachioed, the handsome, well-built Labuschagne was himself a former runner who had a large group of runners under his tutelage: "I represented the province [Free State] while in University at the National Championships in both cross-country and the marathon," he said. "Coaching was just a natural extension of my own experiences, and when I started teaching it was an easy transformation for me into coaching young students."


Excerpted from Olympic Collision by Kyle Keiderling. Copyright © 2016 Kyle Keiderling. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Starting Line    
2. First Steps    
3. Off with the Gun    
4. Healing the Body    
5. Dirty Little Secret    
6. Running for Jenny    
7. The Kid Comes Back with a Swoosh    
8. Out of Africa    
9. Gathering Storms    
10. Rings of Fire    
11. Dream Chasers    
12. A Split Second That Will Live Forever    
13. Coming and Going    
14. The Phoenix Rises    
15. World Champ    
16. Rematch    
17. World Champ Again    
18. Mother Mary    
19. Banned    
20. Heart and Seoul    
21. Marriage and Murder    
22. Promoting L’eggs on Bad Legs    
23. Budd Blooms    
24. New Faces, Old Story    
25. Seems Like Old Times    
26. Trials and Tribulations    
27. War and Peace    

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