It took the best part of 27 years, but the runner wearing number 2621 at Granite Regional Park in Sacramento on Wednesday, finally made it on to the podium at a global event in the state of California. Running in the 8km women's age 45 to 49 cross country race on the opening day of the World Masters Athletics Championships, Zola Pieterse finished second in 29min 19sec – 33 seconds behind Soledad Castro Solino of Spain.
"It was great," Pieterse told The Sacramento Bee. "I probably started out a little too fast, but it was good healthy competition and I really enjoyed it. Today we were having fun. There isn't the same pressure as with other international competitions."
Such as the 1984 Olympic Games at the Los Angeles Coliseum, some 385 miles up Highway 99 from Sacramento, Pieterse might have added. Back then, she was known to the world as Zola Budd.
She was already a global cause célèbre, having been spirited away from South Africa – which was in international sporting isolation at the time because of its apartheid regime – by the Daily Mail and granted a British passport (to which she was entitled because of a British grandfather) in record time. The women's 3,000m final, featuring the barefooted Budd and the American darling Mary Decker, was billed as the clash of those LA Games. A mid-race clash of legs between the pair left Decker, the reigning world champion, sprawled on the infield and Budd fading from first to seventh place amid a chorus of booing by the Coliseum crowd.
Running for England, Budd won the world cross country title in 1985 and 1986 but she returned to South Africa in 1988 and competed for her homeland in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, failing to get beyond the heats of the 3,000m. Now 45 and divorced, she lives under her married name with her three children in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the World Masters Championships she is competing for South Africa – and yet she is still recognised today as the holder of the British women's record for the mile.
The 4min 17.57sec she clocked in Zurich in August 1985 eclipsed the 4:19.41 that Kirsty Wade ran in Oslo the previous month. Twenty six years on, Wade, born in Scotland, raised in Wales, resident on Tyneside during most of her running career and a British Olympian in 1988 and 1992 – continues to be denied the British record by a South African.
"I don't think it's right that the record stands," Wade said yesterday, breaking off from morning cleaning duties at Suainaval, the bed and breakfast establishment she runs overlooking Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis. "Had Zola settled here, I'd have felt differently, but she never did.
"Of the things that were bad about the time I was running, that is actually one of the things that bothers me least. Running against people who were subsequently found to have been using drugs was much worse.
"Yes, Zola ran for Britain out of convenience, but she was in a difficult position. She was a bit of a pawn. She was given an opportunity that wasn't available to her in her own country. It was a mechanism to see somebody in the international arena who was exceptional. It would have been sad if we hadn't seen her run at her best."
The very best of Budd in her time as a British athlete came at Crystal Palace in August 1985 when she smashed Ingrid Kristiansen's world 5,000m record. In July 2011, as a South African athlete at the World Masters Championships, she still has the 5,000m to contest.
It will be her first global final on the track since the LA Olympics in 1984. This time the British mile record holder will be wearing spikes on her feet, and there will be no Mary Decker in sight.