Zola Budd: After the fall


A thorough and most interesting article by Steve Friedman on the story of Zola Budd, in the current issue of Runner’s World: “Zola Budd: After the fall”.

I remember reading a previous feature article on Zola Budd, in a 1983 issue of Runner’s World. The news of her incredible speed and her circumstances as a South African during the apartheid regime made compelling reading.

I watched live on tv the trip up with Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics. (It was Decker who pushed Budd and tripped on Budd’s heels.)

And I can recall the pressure on Budd to speak out against apartheid, which she resisted, finally stating her opposition to it from a Christian perspective.

In her 1989 autobiography (which I confess to having not yet read), she declared her right to pursue her sport of running in peace, i.e. not required to defend any politics. Her comparison of the media not expecting Sebastian Coe to comment on Soviet expansion or Carl Lewis on the Contra arms scandal is a bit of a stretch for me, though.

To put this another way, people like their heros and champions. Winners who are charismatic, personable, and can bring new interest and excitement to whatever they do. In Budd’s case, perhaps there was hypocrisy by injecting political ideology as a factor. But as I and many others of my generation can recall, removing the scourge of apartheid was always a leading news story of the day. To have a spectacular athlete from South Africa itself (regardless of race) to refuse to be drawn into this topic would only be sustainable for so long. It’s easy to see how her objection to apartheid on religious grounds came across as too little too late.

In this current article, Friedman does a superlative job of explaining the background and context of Budd’s engagement with running, how what began as childhood enjoyment (running with her sister Jenny) accelerated to intense international scrutiny and role model expectations when she (and her father) realised how fast and competitive she was, still at a young age.

Budd is only a year older than me. When I ran competitively, particularly while in high school, I wanted to look up to Budd as some sort of heroine running role model. Like many runners, I ran (and still run) for peace and enjoyment, yet still thrive from competition. Reading Friedman’s article, I honestly understand that dimension of Budd’s running.

But Budd has never embraced a winner’s role, then or now. She still comes across, in a modestly naive way, that she can be a champion but not take on any undesired burdens, to pursue her sport in peace. I don’t know how tenable that is for any worldclass athlete.

Back in the mid-1980s, this meant that I could admire her strength, but didn’t want to copy her loneliness or isolation. While every runner knows how personal and individual taking up this sport is, there’s still camaraderie and the joy of sharing experiences with others. I don’t get the impression that Budd has ever felt this joy. Or if she has, she’s kept it too close with her; I’m glad she was willing to open up with Friedman.

None of this is to take away her awesome achievements. And she has always been more sincere than her nemesis Mary Decker.

Friedman concludes his article with Budd’s statement that she runs “to be at peace”, and for that I wish her all the best, particularly considering her personal story that Friedmand describes so well.

It’s just that lingering regret, that considering how insincere Mary Decker was, I always wanted Zola Budd to be a lauded champion, but that isn’t the role she ever seemed prepared to be. Instead, she remains an intriguing enigma to me.

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