It was the Olympic running’s most controversial moment since Jesse Owens. At the women’s 3,000m final at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, two top runners, American Mary Decker and South African Zola Budd bumped into each other twice.
Budd was slightly in front, and at the second bump, Decker’s spikes caught Budd’s heel. Budd was, as usual, running barefoot. Her left leg shot out as she stumbled, tripping Decker. The American pitched forward and crashed to the floor on the infield grass, clutching her right thigh. She was unable to get up and was carried from the track in tears, her race over. This moment was dramatically captured in David Burnett’s (for Sports Illustrated) photos reproduced again and again.
For Zola, already reviled for being South African in an Olympic shadowed by Apartheid, the race was over too. She managed to skirt the Olympic ban against South Africa by competing for Britain, receiving accelerated citizenship because she had a British grandfather. Now, the crowd’s hostile reaction so unnerved the 18-year-old world-record holder that she could only finish seventh. However, the crowd (and we today) only vaguely remember who won that day (Maricica Puica of Romania); the moment have been shown on television from every angle in an attempt to decide which athlete was to blame.
At a news conference after the race, a tearful Mary Decker told journalists, “Zola tried to cut in without being far enough ahead. There was no question but that she was in the wrong.” Track officials disagreed; after initially disqualifying Budd for obstruction, she was reinstated an hour later once officials had viewed films of the race. Budd said she tried to apologise to Decker in the tunnel leading away from the track after the race, but was told abruptly, “Don’t bother.”
Despite her famous mishap and future doping incidents, Decker set 36 U.S. and 17 world records during her career and is considered one of America’s greatest woman athletes. Budd too continued to compete in Britain for another four years, but could never shake off the political controversy, nor overcome criticism over the Decker incident. Reluctant to meddle in politics, she ignored calls to renounce apartheid until her biography, “Zola,” appeared in 1989. In the ensuing years, two women competed against each other; Zola Budd describes Decker’s position as“ she’s forgiven me, but she still blames me.”