It was shaping up as a great race, until it morphed instantly into an epic drama, one filled with those juicy ingredients of tears, pain, blame, intrigue and scandal.
For all the hype that had built up the 3000-meter showdown between Mary Decker and Zola Budd at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, no one could have scripted an ending that would leave both women without medals but also ensure they would never be forgotten.
Decker had come into the Olympics believing with certainty that this was her time. The 26-year-old from Bunnvale, N.J., had missed out on the 1972 Games because she was too young, skipped Montreal four years later because of an injury and was ruled out of Moscow in 1980 due to the American boycott.
Yet, in the months leading up to those remarkable minutes on Friday, August 10, 1984, it was Budd, a waif-like 18-year-old representing Great Britain, who had gained more international attention. For Budd was South African, but could not compete for that nation due to the international sanctions against its apartheid regime. However, after she broke the world record in 1983, a London newspaper supported her bid to move to Britain, the United Kingdom government fast-tracked a citizenship application and, despite a storm of political protest and controversy, Budd was cleared to compete.
Decker's looks, willingness to speak her mind and previous misfortune made her an automatic media darling, while Budd's story, youth and obvious raw ability meant she was an instant target for both camera and interviewer. Other runners with strong credentials, such as Romania's Maricica Puica and Britain's Wendy Sly, were in the final, but listening to television commentators it may as well have been a two-woman race.
As expected, Decker took the field out strongly, starting off at a pace that would have broken the world record, and then gradually decreasing the tempo by around a second per lap. Budd, situated on Decker's right shoulder knowing she didn't have as strong a kick as either Decker or Puica, was becoming frustrated.
The pair – Decker and Budd – touched once, after 500 meters, a slight collision of elbows and a minor warning of the major disaster that would follow.
At the 1600 mark, everything fell apart in a blur. Budd had snuck up on the outside of Decker, aware of the need to hasten the pressure, and gained a slight edge. Budd then began to drift to the inside, feeling she had enough advantage to take the rail … with disastrous consequences. Decker's right thigh grazed Budd's left foot, throwing the South African-turned-Brit off balance.
Budd swayed left, trying to gain control, but instead the pair became tangled, Decker’s spikes catching the heel of the barefooted-running Budd, whose leg shot out involuntarily. That movement and the subsequent contact with her rival was enough to send Decker, tripped and sprawling, into the infield and out of the final.
Decker sat there, inconsolable, dreams of Olympic glory in tatters. After initially attempting to get to her feet, she was pinned to the ground by a torn gluteal muscle, as her British discus-thrower boyfriend Richard Slaney rushed over to comfort her. He would eventually carry her from the track.
Budd meanwhile, carried on, as a chorus of boos rang out in her direction from the pro-American crowd. She faded badly, and could only manage a seventh-place finish, finishing in a time well outside her personal best and nearly seven seconds outside the medals. Budd would later claim she had deliberately slowed as she could not face the guaranteed hostile reaction if she medaled. After initially being disqualified by a track judge, an IAAF jury reinstated her seventh-place finish and found she was not at fault for the collision.
Puica would go on to win in an Olympic record time, with Sly in second and Canada's Lynn Williams in third. None of them are widely remembered today, yet neither do they have the tortured memories to live with like Decker and Budd.
Budd would seek out Decker and attempt to apologize but was famously told "don't bother." In later years, the pair appeared to reconcile, with Decker absolving Budd of blame for the incident, despite initially criticizing her actions during press conferences in Los Angeles.
Decker carried the American flag at the Opening Ceremony in Seoul four years later but again failed to medal.
Budd returned to her homeland after a suspension (for attending an athletics meeting in South Africa) ruled ineligible for the Seoul Games. She competed for South Africa when it was reinstated into world sports at Barcelona in 1992.
Both women ended their careers without an Olympic medal between them, yet their battle on the track in 1984 continues to live on in Games folklore.
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