Zola Budd still runs, but not from the past

Zola Budd has reached the point in her life where she can take her Los Angeles Olympic moment of 25 years ago and swirl it like a nicely aged wine. The memory is smooth now, perfectly palatable.

“It’s amazing how life works out,” she says.

She is Zola Budd Pieterse, 43, the wife of a South African businessman and the mother of three. She lives in Myrtle Beach because, she says, when she reached age 40, she decided she wanted to compete in some American Masters Class track events and thought her children’s ages, twins Mike and Azelle, 11, and Lisa, 13, were right for such an adventure.

Her two-year work visa was approved and she and husband Mike cruised the Internet for the best place to settle. Zola hoped for Arizona, where the heat is both frequent and dry. Mike ran across an ad for Myrtle Beach and its 105 golf courses.


“I was dead,” Zola says.

She says she tries to play golf with her husband but doesn’t do well.

“Too many broken windows,” she says.

Her children go to school, Mike plays golf and travels back and forth to his business of hotel and gas station ownership in South Africa, and Zola handles the dual role of suburban housewife and semi-competitive runner. Three or four days a week, she runs twice a day, sometimes as much as 10 miles on each run, and does so by winding her way around the woods and lakes that make up her neighborhood.

Most likely, the neighbors have no idea of the identity and fame of the tiny woman who just flashed past while they ate breakfast.

“I’m sure not going to bring it up,” Zola says.

The “it” was one of those moments that remain in the scrapbook of Olympic fans forever.

It was the second Friday night of the Los Angeles Olympics, and the feature of the evening was the matchup in the women’s 3,000 meters between America’s running sweetheart, Mary Decker, and the controversial South African-turned-Brit Zola Budd.

Decker had grown from the pig-tailed phenom out of Long Beach into the world-class runner who had moved to Oregon and dominated women’s middle-distance running at the 1983 World Games, winning both the 1,500 and 3,000.

Budd, barely 18, had grown up running barefoot through fields on a South African farm and kept right on going into international prominence with some of the top times in the world. On Jan. 5, 1984, Budd surpassed Decker’s world 5,000 record by more than six seconds.

As the 1984 Olympics approached, she was doomed to be a non-starter, because her country, scorned for its apartheid system, was banned from the Games in 1976.

But, as in so many things in sports, greed and self-interest found a way.

“I remember running in a meet in South Africa,” Zola says, “and having my dad bring a couple of men over to me afterward. He said something about how these two men were from England, and they were going to take care of everything and we were going to move there and I would run in the Olympics.

“I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And that was it.”

Eligible because her paternal grandfather was British, Budd and her parents moved to England in March 1984. They were sponsored by a newspaper, the Daily Mail, which readily parlayed its 100,000-pound investment into exclusive access. Within weeks, Budd was made a British citizen, which caused an uproar, and was running races in her new homeland, which brought picketing and protests from those who interpreted her actions, and lack of any statement in opposition to it, as pro-apartheid.

Two weeks before she left for the Olympics, Budd, the youngest of six children, moved out of her family home and became permanently estranged from her father, about whom she later told Sports Illustrated, “Daddy had recognized my commercial value.” She also said the Daily Mail made her into “some kind of circus animal.”

She told her father, Frank, that she would not compete in the Olympics if he came along. He didn’t and she did, with mother Tossie her companion.

The pressure on this tiny teenager was intense.

When she lined up that Aug. 10 for the women’s 3,000 meters, there were more than 85,000 people in the Coliseum, most of them focused on Budd and Decker. Budd weighed less than 100 pounds and, as always in competition, would run barefoot. She had never run against Decker, even in the qualifying heat. But she certainly knew which one she was. For years, she had had a picture of Mary Decker on her bedroom wall.

Halfway through the race, Budd took the lead and she, Decker, British teammate Wendy Sly and Romanian Maricica Puica distanced themselves slightly from the pack. Suddenly, Decker bumped one of Budd’s legs, seemed to lose her balance, then a few strides later stepped on Budd’s heel and tumbled to the infield. Puica, who would eventually win, had to hurdle Decker, down and injured, to avoid falling herself.

It took a minute or so for the huge crowd to realize what had happened. Once it did, the boos rang down.

“I heard my name,” Zola says now. “I knew who they were booing. It was the largest crowd I had ever run in front of, and certainly the nastiest.”

She led for a while, then slowed almost to a crawl and finished seventh, the medals going, in order, to Puica, Sly and Lynn Williams of Canada.

“I could have gotten a medal,” Zola says, “but I just couldn’t face getting on the victory stand and getting booed again. My mother was there.”

Instead, she finished, headed for the haven of the Coliseum tunnel and approached Decker, offering an apology, even though she wasn’t sure she had done anything wrong and, years later, Decker would absolve her of blame.

With dozens of reporters nearby, Decker uttered the two words to Budd that further fueled the controversy.

“Don’t bother,” she said.

Thousands of miles from home, and figurative light years from the comfort and familiarity of the farms fields of Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, Zola Budd’s life had become an international cause celebre.

They whisked her onto a bus, away from the Coliseum and eventually off to her mother’s hotel, where she could stay in semi-hiding. For two days, she watched TV and waited for her flight back to England.

“I ate a lot of Haagen Dazs ice cream,” she says.

Then, a car showed up and took her, with full police escort, to LAX, where she was convoyed directly onto the tarmac and let out at the airplane’s steps.

“I’ll never forget that,” she says. “They just wanted to get rid of me, but it was kind of neat, like being in an L.A. movie.”

When she arrived in London, there had been a death threat. One report said it had come from the U.S.

A couple of weeks later, she was also gone from England and back in South Africa, although she had to return and live in England six months of the year to retain her citizenship and competition opportunities. She remained estranged from her father for the rest of his life, not even visiting his grave until last year, 19 years after he died of a gunshot wound from a man who accused Frank Budd of making a sexual advance.

“Right after the Olympics, I needed to get away from everything, get the Daily Mail off my back,” she says. “I needed to go back to South Africa and start life over again.”

Now, still not much bigger than her Olympic running weight, but 25 years older, she can look back with both fondness and perspective.

“One thing I will never forget,” she says, “is the girl on the bus when we left the Coliseum. She was one of the British runners, a black girl, and she was crying. I asked her why, and she said, ‘I’m crying for what happened to you.’ It was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me.”

She says that the reality of the race -- stripping away the favored media story line of the pretty American versus the barefoot South African teenage waif -- was that Puica had the best time coming in and was going to win, no matter what.

“If you wake Mary up in the middle of the night and ask her that,” Zola says, “she’d tell you she knew she wasn’t going to win the gold.”

Zola also says her own perception of that moment and its significance is vastly different from the place it holds in track-and-field history.

“What happened that night with Mary was a kind of divine intervention,” Zola says. “It showed me that I shouldn’t have been there and so much of all that was wrong. So much else has happened in my personal life --my dad, my husband leaving me for a while, my mom dying -- that that race doesn’t dominate me.”

Little remembered is that she ran again in the Olympics. Sanctions against South Africa were lifted before the Barcelona games, and Budd, then 26, failed to qualify in the 3,000. In the four years after the L.A. Olympics, she competed internationally for Britain and won the world cross-country championships in 1985 and ’86.

After marriage, her pregnancies took her away from running for several years, but now she’s back, and winning various road races around South Carolina. She even competed in last fall’s New York City Marathon, finishing in just under three hours, despite struggling mightily the last few miles.

“I was seeing dead people there for a while,” she says.

Zola Budd Pieterse’s children have seen films of her race with Decker, but she has never cared to.

“My oldest daughter asked my mother about it one time, and she showed it to them,” Zola says. “I wasn’t happy about that.”

She says she has been back to Los Angeles twice since the 1984 Olympics, but it never occurred to her to visit the Coliseum.

“I went shopping,” she says.

Her rambling brick home, sitting between two small lakes and looking out onto clumps of forest, contains no shrines to an athletic career and the signature moment that brought her fame.

There is only one picture of her as a runner, in her bedroom.

“I use it to inspire me to get up in the morning and run,” she says.

Twenty-five years later, much has changed. And one thing never will.