A Falling Out Is Soothed by Apology


For all of her athletic accomplishments and all of her notoriety as a “symbol of white South Africa,” Zola Budd knows that she is famous primarily for the Great Fall.

During the 3,000-meter final of the 1984 Olympics, Mary Decker of the United States fell with three laps to go when her legs appeared to tangle with Budd’s. Budd, who had been with the leaders, slowed to finish seventh.

In her autobiography, published last year, Budd recalled that day in Los Angeles as being warm. At the Coliseum, the athletes were ushered to a waiting room, where some runners slept and Budd read a western novel.

Budd remembered one light moment: When the athletes were lined up before going on the track, an Olympic official checked each runner’s shoes to ensure their spikes conformed to the rules. When the official got to Budd, the world’s most famous barefoot runner, she merely showed him the soles of her feet. The official laughed and passed her along.


In the book, Budd says she didn’t even see Decker fall. But she heard the crowd’s reaction and knew immediately who had fallen and who the American crowd held responsible.

Budd wrote: “Can you imagine what it’s like to have 90,000 people booing at you? It was awful and in that instant all that mattered to me was getting as far away from them as possible.”

Budd left the track, boarded an athletes’ bus back to the Olympic Village and from there went to stay with her mother, who had rented an apartment in Los Angeles. For the duration of the Games, Budd watched television, ate ice cream and sat by a pool.

The incident produced an international debate. Some experts blamed Budd, some Decker and some said both runners were at fault. Budd said little but recalled walking into the Coliseum tunnel after the race. There she encountered Decker, whom Budd had idolized as a young runner. When Budd approached Decker to say she was sorry, Decker snapped, “Don’t bother!”

That rebuff remained with Budd until, one day, she received a letter, dated Dec. 2, 1984:

“Dear Zola,

“I’ve been wanting to write this letter to you for a long time. The reason I haven’t sent this letter before is because I was sure that you would not receive it personally.

“I simply want to apologize to you for hurting your feelings at the Olympics. There are many reasons that people react the way they do at certain times in their lives and I’m sure you understand that that was a very difficult time for me.

“I’m sorry I turned you away after the race, it was a very hard moment for me emotionally and I reacted in an emotional manner.

“I know that we do not know each other personally, but the next time we meet I would like to shake your hand and let everything that has happened be put behind us. Who knows; sometimes even the fiercest competitors become friends. . . .

“Yours in sport,

“Mary Decker”