Whatever happened to... Zola Budd?

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The date 1984. Thirteen years ago this week a girl of 17, running barefoot in the South African veldt, breaks the 5,000m world record.

The problem It doesn't count. Although she's very nice, and South Africa is a beautiful place, it also happens to play host to a repressive apartheid regime, shunned by most of the world.

The solution Britain comes to the rescue. The Daily Mail flies Budd to London in February 1984, wrapping the Union Jack (metaphorically) around her. Suddenly, she's British - in just 23 days, joining that fine line of British sportsmen - Graeme Hick and Greg Rusedski - who aren't. That great British tradition of bringing foreign bodies into the blood line to cover our own lack of home-grown talent.

The 1984 Olympics might have had something to do with her nationality papers being rushed through - just in time for a big showdown with the US athlete, and favourite, Mary Decker. Rounding the corner in the fifth lap of the 3,000m final in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Decker catches Budd's heel. The crowd holds its breath, then gasps as she tumbles to the ground. Decker stays prostrate on the track and Budd trails in seventh to the accompaniment of boos from the 85,000 home crowd.

The aftermath Some think it's scripted to give the Olympics their regular big story (Russian cheating in 1980, Ben Johnson in 1988). Certainly, Decker fails to get up and cries. Budd seems perfectly genuine in making an attempt to apologise to Decker in the tunnel afterwards, only for Decker to tell her "don't bother".

That final is the end of her. She loses to Decker regularly in 1985 and her life is constantly disrupted by people not very pleased about the fact their citizenship takes two years rather than 23 days. Or that black people are without basic human rights in her former home. Protesters force her to leave the course at a race in Durham in 1988 and, soon after, the country. But a return to South Africa seems the best thing. Marriage in 1989, to Mike Pieterse, a South African businessman, at last appears to bring happiness to one area of her life.

Although... her father isn't very happy. He'd made a considerable fortune out of taking her to Britain. At one point the US had been considered with its vastly superior training facilities, but the higher newspaper fees in the UK had persuaded him otherwise. He rather spoils the wedding by announcing: "I no longer have a daughter called Zola. To me she's dead and I curse her." They split. Her father's influence is weakened further when five months later he's found murdered.

Now By the time of a Decker-Budd re-match in 1992 they're both mature people who can accept what happened. They're also crap, and this tempers any additional excitement when Budd runs for the new South Africa in 1994. Still, some things never change: Decker clips the heel of a runner at the 1996 American trials. Budd herself is running again: in Tokyo last weekend. And the Government still welcome anyone seeking immigration with open arms. As long as they might be able to break a few world records. And they're not black.

James Aufenast