David Burnett on Mary Decker’s Fall

Olympics Games have their controversial moments (Personally I am going to be bitching about this year’s biking commissars for decades to come). Iconic Photos has looked back at one of them here before; now it’s time to let its photographer reflect: 

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I don’t think there’s going to be many more. Not that there won’t be good pictures taken. But we are in an age of visual overload. I don’t think there’s going to be another Olympic picture that is going to get that kind of run.

I’d been shooting track for a whole week from a lot of different locations, up high and low, but a lot of it from the finish line. I was just so tired of standing next to these guys that had these big tripods with 11 cameras attached to them and remote wires going up to cameras with 400-millimeter lenses — I needed a breath of fresh air. I picked up my stuff and walked down the track. There were two photographers sitting at one bench, next to where the crowd was, and a spot for somebody else.

The 3,000 final came up. This was the big race of the week: Mary Decker would win the gold medal that had been denied her when the U.S. decided to skip [the previous] games. The other big story was Zola Budd, running barefoot, who couldn’t run for South Africa because it was banned from international competition.

The 3,000 is seven-and-a-half laps, and I had a really good shot of turn four with a 400-millimeter lens.

As Zola makes her move, around the fifth lap I shoot with the 400, then pick up the 85 as they start to go by me. Zola tries to pass Mary. Mary comes down hard, trips and falls over the edge.

Thing is, I couldn’t tell in detail what was going on, but I know what’s supposed to happen,  that they’re going to run through my frame and keep going. And I’m seeing that Mary is not doing that, and I look down after I’ve shot some frames with the 85. And I see her lying there, and I immediately grab the 400, brought that up to my eye and I honestly remember taking an extra millisecond saying to myself, “Make sure you’re sharp.” I kind of focused on her eye, and I made seven or eight frames.

The nurse came over, Mary was kind of laying down, and then there’s that one frame where she’s looking down the track. It’s one of those things that I just got lucky, and I didn’t screw up. It’s about being lucky and not screwing up, and trying to be ready for some moment if you happen to be the right place.

Since his debut in that 1984 Los Angeles Games, David Burnett has photographed eight summer Olympics, including London. Read the rest of his interview here.

The Fall of Mary Decker

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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.”