Olympic Collision

Mary Decker, Zola Budd and “The Fall” re-visited.

Olympic Collision Kyle Keiderling

The women’s 3,000 meter race was the most hyped event at the 1984 summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles—an event which took an unexpected, dramatic turn when hometown hero Mary Decker fell after making contact with Zola Budd with three laps to go. “If you mention Zola Budd’s name today, most people will say, ‘Oh yeah, Zola Budd, the girl who tripped Mary Decker,’ offers Kyle Keiderling, author of Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd (University of Nebraska Press). In part that’s because the immediate reaction of ABC-TV commentator Marty Liquori was that Budd was responsible for the fall. “My initial call was wrong,” he said the day after the race. “I thought Zola moved in, but she didn’t.”

In “Olympic Collision,” Keiderling recounts what happened during the infamous race, while also following Decker and Budd through their lives, which have been more alike than one might expect. In the following Failure interview, Keiderling discusses the running careers of both Decker and Budd, and explains how and why Budd represented Great Britain in the ’84 Olympics, despite being a native South African. He also reveals what other competitors in the race had to say when he interviewed them about the incident, which is also the subject of a well-received 2016 documentary titled The Fall, directed by Dan Gordon.

The Mary Decker-Zola Budd collision is one of the most famous moments in Olympic history. What prompted you to write a book about it?

Like everyone else, I recall watching the race and the impact it had. ABC was bound and determined—as were the print media—to make the race the premier event of the Games. It had all the elements that Hollywood needed. It featured Mary Decker, the hometown girl who had started her career in southern California. By the time Decker was 14 she had run further and faster than anyone had at that age. The media loved her; she made great copy.

It’s interesting how Decker repeatedly missed out on competing in the Olympics. What happened in 1972, ’76 and ’80 that kept her from competing until 1984?

In 1972 she was too young [13 at the cutoff date], despite the fact that she had the fastest mile time in the country that year. When the 1976 Games came along she was injured. In 1980 the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. In 1984 she finally got her chance to win a gold medal; she had won everything else she could possibly win. It was supposed to be the coronation of Queen Mary. Of course, it didn’t end well for her.

Why did Decker run just one race—the 3,000 meters—at the ’84 Olympics?

She qualified in the 1,500 and 3,000 but had a slight injury and there wasn’t much time between races. One thing about Decker that people don’t really know is that during her career she had more than 30 surgeries. She was either setting world records or she was hobbled. And that was part of her appeal; she was a soap opera story. Anyway, the decision was that competing in both events would not allow her sufficient recovery time. She decided to concentrate on the 3,000 meters.

How did the childhoods of both Decker and Budd influence their running careers?

Both grew up in dysfunctional families, both were estranged from their fathers, both used early emotional trauma as the prime motivation for running, both would eventually be banned by the international governing body of their sport (though for very different reasons), and both employed the same running style, always running from the front. These two women were eight years and eight-thousand miles apart but had very similar lives and their careers followed almost parallel paths until they intersected at the Los Angeles Games. As a result, they are drawn together in our collective minds forever.

How did being from South Africa, with its politics, affect Budd’s career?

Budd grew up on a small farm outside Bloemfontein in South Africa and led a very sheltered life. When she was born her mother was in labor for something like 36 hours; hospital staffers didn’t expect her to live and called her “the miracle baby.” Her mother never recovered fully and she was raised by an older sister named Jenny, who was 11 years older. It was Jenny that taught her to run. But when Jenny was in her early twenties she underwent routine surgery and complications set in and she died. The loss of Jenny hit Budd very hard; it still causes her to tear up when she talks about her sister.

Anyway, Budd decided she was going to run for Jenny and that’s how her career started. South Africa, at the time, was a nation with a government policy of apartheid, which made the country a pariah in the eyes of the world. They were outcasts from the community of nations and couldn’t compete in any international competitions. So Budd’s early career—up until she was 17 years old—was confined to South Africa. However, it was the most spectacular career any athlete had in South Africa and she was—from the time she was 15 or 16—basically running against the clock. There wasn’t anyone in South Africa who could run with her. In January 1984 she ran a 5,000 meter race in Stellenbosch and shattered Decker’s world record by more than six seconds.

But Budd’s father looked at his daughter and saw a commodity that he could convert to cash. The Daily Mail, a newspaper in England, had picked up the story that this barefoot 17-year-old had set a new world record for 5,000 meters and some of the more observant sports writers there passed the news along and found out that—lo and behold—Budd’s grandfather was a British citizen, which made her eligible for British citizenship. Ultimately, her father sold ‘the life story of Zola Budd’ to the Daily Mail for £100,000, which brought her to England. She was spirited out of the country in the middle of the night because they were so afraid of the reaction in South Africa. When Budd packed her things and turned to leave her room the last thing she saw when she turned the light out was the poster on her wall above her bed—a poster of her idol, Mary Decker. When Budd got off the plane in England she stepped into bedlam. Not even old enough to vote, she became the target of the anti-apartheid lobby in Great Britain. They put a target on her back and she was picketed and spat upon and called a racist. Her races were interrupted by protesters. She was pretty much a prisoner, too, as the Daily Mail had exclusive rights and didn’t want anybody else talking to her. They rented her a place and locked her up without a friend in sight, and that’s how she lived when preparing for the Olympics.

The only thing people remember about the 3,000 meter race at the ’84 Olympics is Mary Decker’s fall. Remind readers what happened.

It’s hard to fault ABC for the way they covered the race; it made a great story. Then this unforeseen incident occurs and their cameras focus on Decker, while the race is continuing for several more laps. Marty Liquori, a great American miler, was providing commentary and Liquori said he thought Budd had maybe cut in a little too early. But if you look at the video you’ll see that Decker ran into Budd from behind, once prior to the incident and then eight or ten strides later, this time losing her balance and falling. In falling, she reached out and ripped Budd’s number off her back.

I interviewed all the women in the race except Decker [who didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview], and they all told me it was Decker’s fault. Several of the women voluntarily told me that they thought Decker didn’t get up because she knew she was going to get beaten and just couldn’t take it. One of them told me that when Budd took the lead and assumed the pace setting position in front that Decker just kind of gave up, and that maybe it was her way of not losing.

To be perfectly honest, if you look at the times of the women in the race, Maricica Puică of Romania had the fastest time in the world that year and was the favorite. But she was surrounded by the Romanian Secret Police and didn’t speak English so nobody interviewed her and she was largely ignored instead of being touted as the woman to beat. So there were great expectations for Decker, which she may or may not have been able to fulfill had she not fallen.

How did things unfold in the immediate aftermath of the incident?

As the race continued, Decker was weeping and wailing in the infield, and with America’s sweetheart out of the race the booing started. She told me she had the ability to dissociate from what was going on around her; it was the only way she was able to survive the four months in Great Britain. But now she was leading the race and as she ran around the track with the boos cascading down she felt her reservoir run dry. She knew if she continued to run and won a medal she would have to get on the medal stand, and once she got there the boos would rain down again. So she slowed down and ended up finishing sixth or seventh.

But it wasn’t over for Budd. She tried to approach Decker after the race and Mary brushed her off, which made Budd even more despondent. Then after getting treatment for the spike marks in her Achilles, police officers arrived and said they had received death threats. They gave her a police escort to LAX.

Decker, on the other hand, went on to hold a news conference. The room was overflowing with reporters from all over the world wanting to know what happened. And Decker didn’t walk in; she was carried in and placed in a chair. She blamed the entire incident on Budd. It was at the press conference that the deconstruction of Queen Mary began. Her handling of the incident was about as bad as you can imagine. Once that televised press conference was held she was no longer America’s sweetheart, she was just a bad loser.

It’s hard to fathom that neither Decker nor Budd ever won an Olympic medal.

That is really hard to understand. At one point or another, Decker held every single American record from 800 meters to 10,000 meters, and both women were two-time world champions and multiple world record holders. Interestingly, Budd still runs every day and competes in marathons, half-marathons and ultra-marathons. She has a bumper stick on her car that says, “Running: cheaper than therapy.”