Friday, 15 July 2016

Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd

August 10, 1984: after 1,700 metres of the women's 3,000m Olympic final, four runners are out in front. We didn't know it at the time, but we were just seconds away from one of the most memorable moments of the 1984 Summer Olympics, indeed of the whole sporting decade.

A race that had been so eagerly anticipated appeared to be living up to the hype. Yet for two of the athletes involved, there would be no fairy tale ending, more like a nightmare. It is a story that needs to be told and, luckily for a sports addict like me, it has. This unfortunate coming together has been brilliantly covered in Kyle Keiderling's new book: Olympic Collision - The story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd.

Keiderling starts at the very beginning, delving into the childhood years of two girls who would use running as a way to escape rowing parents. Both would experience emotional turmoil in relation to their fathers, and Budd's world was turned upside down when her older sister and role model Jenny died. Unfortunately, there is a recurring theme of misfortune for the duo.

Decker initially took the running world by storm, although her constant desire to push herself proved costly in terms of injuries. Numerous coaches tried and failed to control her, until Dick Brown enjoyed success, the "Double Decker" of 1,500m and 3,000m at the 1983 World Championships a highlight. But as the years developed, Decker may have enjoyed success on the track but off it her stock dropped. The LA Times' Rick Reilly summed up Decker's standing prior to the LA games: "If she was America's sweetheart, America needed body armour".

It may be hard to warm to Decker in the book, but you would need a heart of stone to not feel anything other than sympathy for Budd. Keiderling describes the exploitation of the 17-year-old South African, detailing how the Daily Mail, her father, and her coach collaborated to arrange for Budd to run under a British flag of convenience. How Budd became a political pawn, a hate figure amongst anti-apartheid protestors, and sad, lonely, and depressed at the developments. Trouble seemed to be following Budd about, and through no fault of her own.

One common theme throughout the book is the Olympic heartache suffered by Decker, and this is one aspect in which you can relate to the American. You feel for Decker as she dreamed of winning an Olympic title, yet was constantly thwarted in an otherwise stellar career.

In 1972 she was too young; in 1976 injured; the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the US; in 1988, Decker qualified, but was off the pace; by 1992 and 1996, the flame was fading. Keiderling manages to piece together these tales of frustration, in such a way that you begin understand slightly why Decker reacted the way she did to her clash with Budd in Los Angeles.

Reading the chapters leading up to that race, you can almost hear the Jaws music in the background, knowing fully what is about to happen to the central figures in the book. However, beforehand there is an interesting chapter looking at the 3,000m finalists in Los Angeles, Keiderling extracting useful information from the other ten women involved.

The pressure felt by Maricica Puica with the Romanian Secret Police watching her every move; Cornelia Burki and Brigitte Kraus accusing Puica of taking performance enhancing drugs; Dianne Rodger raising suspicions about both Decker and Puica; the incredible back story of Joan Hansen. A necessary section, providing meat on the bones of the Decker-Budd story.

Naturally the race itself is discussed in great detail. The tension builds as Keiderling superbly describes the events leading up to the Olympic collision with a little over three laps to go. Canadian Lynn Williams could see the trouble brewing, informing the author that as the race progressed she thought "something's going to happen". Decker almost went down seconds before, but the second time that the two came together, she would not be so lucky. As the title of the chapter suggests, a split second that changed the lives of Budd and Decker forever.

As Decker laid dramatically on the infield, tears streaming down her face as she let the world know of her agony, the race continued. But the incident was one body blow too many for Budd. As the boos increased, she tells Keiderling of how she slowed down, fearing more abuse if she finished in the top three and had to come back for the medal ceremony. A startling admission, and one that clearly highlights the mental state of Budd at the time. After everything she had been through, she now had to contend with this. Tripping over the American poster girl as Decker tried desperately for the one medal missing from her collection.

Keiderling manages brilliantly to convey the emotions that Budd must have been experiencing at the time. My heart was in my mouth as he relates how Budd passed Decker after the race to say sorry, only to be firmly rebuked by the American. Keiderling also reveals that Burki told Decker straight after this that it was her fault and Puica confirmed that Decker caused the problem. The press also questioned Decker's version of events, grilling her after she had dramatically been carried in to the press conference by her husband Richard Slaney (Decker had been to the hospital and given crutches for a hip sprain).

But not everyone saw it like this at first. Budd was originally disqualified, but reinstated after an appeal by the British team. And commentator Marty Liquori at first put the accident down to the inexperience of Budd, telling the watching millions that Decker was not to blame. In a key insight given by Keiderling, Liquori reveals how he later watched the tape and phoned his producer to tell him that he had been wrong in his original verdict. But no one other than the producer heard this retraction, something that Liquori regrets.

Luckily for the reader, the book covers plenty of interesting topics post-Olympics, as the vultures circled sniffing the opportunity of a rematch between the pair. The promoters got their wish, Decker easily defeating Budd in July 1985 at Crystal Palace, with ABC estimating that 100 million people would watch the event.

Both did in fact enjoy a strong year after their clash; Decker won regularly in Europe and set a world record in the mile, with Budd winning the World Cross Country Championships, the 3,000m at the Europa Cup, and establishing a new world best in the 5,000m. But from this point on, Keiderling tells a story of frustration and pain, as the fortunes of the two athletes begin to take a turn for the worse.

1986 should have been a great season for Budd. Successfully defending her Cross Country title, Budd might have hoped for happier times. But she was still miserable and alone, argued with her coach, had to pull out of the Commonwealth Games due to a residency row, injured her hamstring, and came fourth in the final of the 3,000m at the European Championships. Budd simply could not catch a break.

Decker took a break in 1986 after becoming a mother, but she would similarly suffer on and off the track from this point on. Injuries dogged her career, even in her heyday, and this situation did not improve as the years progressed, her Achilles tendon a particular weakness. The Olympic dream continued to live on, yet sickness prior to the 1988 games hardly helped Decker's preparations, and before too long, age began to catch up with her.

And the angst simply continues for the duo. Keiderling reveals the ludicrous circumstances behind Budd's ban from athletics in 1988 ("guilty until proven innocent she has always been," stated the Atlanta Constitution's Ed Hinton at the time); how Decker, so vocal in her stance against drug use, tried to clear her name after she was banned due to her urine sample taken at the 1996 US Olympic trials containing high levels of testosterone; how an African tick dented Budd's hopes at the 1992 Olympics, as she ran for her nation of birth.

Throughout the book there are so many nuggets of information that I never knew about, and as someone who loves to learn new things regarding sport in the 1980s, Keiderling's book is a gem. For example, finding out that Budd had a poster of Decker on her bedroom wall, and that she immediately pulled it down after Los Angeles, was fascinating, and the story of Decker's tantrum after Bob Hickey and another runner jokingly jostled her in a training run was an eye opener ("You don't run in front of Mary," said coach Don DeNoon. "She always has to be in front"). The interview featuring the pair on Jana Wendt's show in Australia in 1992 is also something that had passed me by.

There is a film on the Decker-Budd clash called The Fall, which will be shown on Sky Atlantic on July 29. I sincerely hope it is as good as Kyle Keiderling's book on the subject. A brilliantly researched, easy to read book, on a memorable sporting moment of the 1980s. Keiderling not only covers LA 1984, he writes a mini-autobiography on two fascinating and misunderstood characters, making this book a must-read for any sports fan. The lives and careers of Decker and Budd provide Keiderling with plenty of material, and he makes full use of this in a fantastic publication.


  1. I hope Wendy Sly who ran brilliantly to get a silver medal gets a decent mention. It's also been mentioned on other blogs that not everyone thinks Decker would have won had the clash not happened. Personally I had a strong antipathy for Decker after 1984, but she was unlucky when it came to the Olympics.

  2. Wendy, and all the other women in the race are profiled in the book. I felt that they deserved it after having been all but ignored by the media enthralled by the Decker-Budd duel they had created.