x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Budd v Decker: who was to blame?

Something had to give; the final of the women's 3000 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was the most eagerly awaited event of the Games.

Something had to give; the final of the women's 3000 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was the most eagerly awaited event of the Games, bringing together Mary Decker, America's sweetheart, and the barefoot phenomenon, Zola Budd. Born in South Africa and therefore banned from the Olympics because of her country's apartheid policy, Budd was running in a British vest thanks to an English-born grandfather and the Daily Mail newspaper, which had pressured the government into granting the 18-year-old a fast-track citizenship. A large proportion of the British population was outraged at this cynical manoeuvre, leaving the hapless and naive teenager as unpopular in her adopted home as she was in her native land.

But it was not politics that drove Decker. Despite having completed the 1500m and 3000m double at the World Championships in Helsinki the previous year, she had a point to prove; earlier in the season Budd had shattered her 5000m world record by more than six seconds and she was determined to take revenge by adding Olympic gold to her medal collection after missing the 1976 Games in Montreal through injury and Moscow 1980 because of the American boycott in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Such was the pre-race hype surrounding the two that the Romanian Maricica Puica, who had run the fastest time in the world that year, had already been written off by most people as the probably bronze medallist. The events of 25 years ago today still inspire heated debate. As was her custom, Decker set a fast pace from the gun with Budd in on her shoulder closely followed by Puica and Britain's Wendy Sly. At the halfway mark, the South African-Briton moved out to overtake her rival with Decker running half a stride behind on the inside. As the field entered the home straight with three laps to go, Decker's right thigh clipped Budd's left foot but after a slight stumble she was able to maintain her balance.

A few yards later, the pair tangled again and Decker toppled on to the infield, injuring her left hip and forcing her withdrawal. As the boos rang out - American sports fans do not like to see American sports heroes being carried away from the action in tears - Budd slowed and eventually trailed home down the field as Puica took the gold ahead of Sly and the Canadian Lynn Williams. Disqualified and then reinstated in seventh place when video evidence proved that Decker's "aggressive running" had been the cause of the accident, Budd tried to apologise in the tunnel after the race to which the American replied: "Don't bother."

It would be many years later before Decker would admit: "Some people think she tripped me deliberately. I happen to know that wasn't the case at all. The reason I fell is because I was very inexperienced in running in a pack." That statement does not quite tally with Budd's recollection of the pair's last meeting in a road race in Australia in 1992. "She said she still blamed me for what happened but she has forgiven me, whatever that means."

Said the silver medallist, Sly. "I knew Mary had fallen, but I didn't pay much attention. All I thought was that I had to go for it; I just focused on my own race. I assumed Mary had got up and carried on running. I heard the crowd booing, but only after the race, when everyone was asking me about everyone else except me and my performance, did I realise that it was such a huge issue. "The incident is remembered because Zola was the most controversial athlete of that period and Mary was the American darling. It was a classic disaster waiting to happen."

rphilip@thenational.ae