THE AGONY OF DEFEAT : THE SPLIT SECOND THAT WILL LAST FOREVER : When Mary Decker Tripped on Zola Budd’s Heel and Fell Out of the 3,000-Meter Race, Her Troubles Were Really Just Beginning

Times Staff Writer

In one split second, one tragic split second, Mary Decker’s hopes for an Olympic gold medal were gone. And so were Zola Budd’s. But, in the aftermath, even more may have been lost.

Decker’s image as America’s Sweetheart was destined to slip dramatically. And Budd’s already turbulent young life, jarred repeatedly and unfairly by a South African political situation she was probably too young to totally comprehend, was destined to be further shaken by yet another controversy she couldn’t control.

Yes, there would be long-term effects, real mental suffering as a result of that moment when Decker’s cleats dug into the back of Budd’s bare heal during the women’s Olympic 3,000-meter run.

Decker lost her balance, grabbed desperately for anything that might steady her, but found only the number on Budd’s back, which tore away as Decker went sprawling onto the infield. Budd, incredibly, maintained her balance even as she turned to see her idol fall.


The crowd of more than 92,000 filled the Coliseum with a chorus of boos. It was an ugly moment, an ugly scene.

The impact of the moment was not lost on either Decker or Budd. Their grieving began immediately. On the grass in the infield, the injured, anguished Decker wallowed in her pain and sorrow. Finally, she was carried away in the arms of her fiance, British discus thrower Richard Slaney. On the track, Budd slowed, her tears flowing and the horror of the moment written all over her face as she went through the motions of finishing the race.

But perhaps the worst part for each was knowing that the agony of that tragic split second wouldn’t be going away soon.

Last week, almost a year later, they ran a rematch, a made-for-TV drama from the Crystal Palace in London that supposedly settled the smoldering issue. As expected, Mary Decker Slaney (she married Slaney Jan. 1) won the race going away. Budd finished a distant fourth. There were no falls, no tears, no confrontations. Slaney was gracious in victory. Budd just kind of disappeared in defeat.


So it’s over now? That tragic split second forgotten? Well, apparently not.

When she was asked, three days before the rematch, if the time had come to forgive and forget, Slaney said, with distinct conviction: “I may forgive, but I don’t forget.”

That, it seems, re-opens the question of Slaney’s extreme post-race anguish. Why the prolonged bitterness? Why wasn’t somebody from her entourage perceptive enough to help her turn the admittedly tragic split second into something positive, rather than something so lingering and angrily negative?

Without stretching the point too much, it seems apparent that Slaney, the victim, could have been the tragic hero, the winner of hearts. Maybe she, along with Mary Lou Retton, would be on Wheaties boxes now.


Instead, Slaney self-destructed her image.

She could have gotten away with the wailing in the infield. She was injured, in pain, in shock over her lost opportunity. She could have gotten away with saying, at the press conference an hour later, that it was all Budd’s fault. Maybe it was--that’s open to debate--and she could be expected to feel that way.

Jim Ryun, who had, himself, fallen in the 1,500-meter race at the 1972 Munich Olympics after tangling with another runner, pointed out that Slaney was really put on the spot while emotions were still running high. He said, “I was thankful for one thing, I didn’t have a press conference immediately afterward.”

A very good point.


But a day later--with 24 hours of time to think, cool down, listen to advice, get things in perspective, even perhaps realize the potential marketability of a fallen heroine--the bitterness remained.

In her TV interview with ABC’s Kathleen Sullivan, Slaney remained petulant and sulky. When she was asked why she had not reached out to give Budd a push, signaling that she needed room to come through--a practice commonly used by world-class runners in these situations--she said, with a defensive tone, “If I had pushed Zola Budd, the whole world would have been up in arms that Mary pushed little Zola .”

Slaney had passed up the perfect opportunity to soften--not withdraw--her statements made in the heat of the moment the night before and to soften the public perception of the way she had treated her younger competitor, a public perception further fueled by news reports of harsh words (some observers said obscene) she used toward Budd after the race when Budd attempted to approach her.

Now, in the aftermath of that tragic split second, a funny thing had happened. Roles had reversed.


When Slaney, at age 26, with experience and beauty and popularity going for her, verbally lashed out at 18-year-old Zola Budd, a shy little girl who ran barefoot and looked owlish in her oversized glasses, a little girl who already had an underdog image because of her guilt-by-association role in the ongoing South Africa controversy and later her quick British citizenship controversy, Slaney came off badly.

Budd had told reporters before the Olympics that she idolized Slaney, that she had a poster of Slaney in her room and that she thought, “It must be wonderful to be so pretty.”

Budd has said nothing of the sort since. Mostly, things have kind of simmered for a year.

The race in London may have helped. Even a controversy of this magnitude, with its insatiable public interest, runs out of steam eventually.


Now, whenever she is asked about her relationship with Budd, Slaney says that there has never been a problem. She wrote Budd a letter last March, and Budd wrote back, but neither will reveal the contents of the letters.

The two had not met face to face until the race in London last week. And, at that time, Slaney was congenial. She wished Budd luck before the race and consoled her after it.

She told TV interviewers, “You can’t go around being bitter and twisted about it.”

And so, apparently, Slaney thinks the incident is behind her.


Sadly, for Slaney and Budd, even though it only took a second to happen, it is likely to remain vivid in the minds of millions for many years.