Even the most casual of track and field fans is likely to be familiar with the 3,000 meters race at the 1984 Olympic Games in which Mary Decker and Zola Budd collided, leaving Decker sprawled and screaming on the infield by the track and Budd fading to seventh place, blood from being punctured by Decker’s cleats running down her leg. Few, however, will know the details of the before and after contained in Kyle Keiderling’s Olympic Collision. And these details are full of drama, encompassing dysfunctional families, politics, drugs, and stark personality differences in the two main characters.
Keiderling begins with the birth of Mary Decker in 1958 and Zola Budd in 1966 and alternates his focus between the two women throughout the book. Both endured troubled family circumstances. Decker’s parents fought, separated, and divorced, with Decker’s father going to court to avoid paying for her support, an incident that left her with a permanent sense of abandonment. Budd’s parents, who also eventually divorced, lost two children—an infant son five years before Zola’s birth and a daughter, dearly loved by Zola, when Zola was fourteen. Both Mary and Zola created an escape through running and found early success.
Of course, Budd’s successes received less attention than Decker’s. Because of the country’s policy of apartheid, athletes from South Africa were barred from international competition, so Budd was unable to run against the best in the world. Just in time for the 1984 Olympics, however, a reporter from England’s Daily Mail happened on the information that Budd’s paternal grandfather had been born in Great Britain, making Zola eligible for British citizenship. The newspaper was willing to pay a considerable sum of money to Budd’s family (controlled by her overbearing father); the government was willing to expedite the bureaucratic process; and Zola was swept away to England to run for Great Britain, despite her stated wish not to compete in the Olympics. Once there, she found herself immediately in a firestorm of controversy with anti-apartheid protests everywhere she went, including several occasions when protesters rushed onto the track to disrupt her progress during racing events.
Keiderling does a magnificent job of building up the tension as Decker and Budd’s stories move toward their eventual literal collision at the 1984 Olympics. In a nice bit of background, he even includes information about each of the runners in the Olympic 3,000 race—how they got there and how they fared in the race. It’s a nice reminder that the race was not solely about Decker and Budd, something often forgotten even though neither of them came close to earning a medal. Although the overwhelming view is that Decker tried too aggressively to pass Budd on the inside, Decker still maintains that Budd was in the wrong, not disqualified only because of politics.
Keiderling also sketches a history of doping in track and field, focusing on the Eastern Europeans and Chinese, and discusses at length the doping allegations made against Mary Decker. Although he doesn’t take a firm position, it’s obvious he has his doubts that Decker was clean, since he repeats a considerable number of claims from anonymous athletes. The facts are that Decker failed a drug test at the 1996 Olympic Trials, unsuccessfully fought the associated ban, and lost her silver medal from the world championships in 1997, although she steadfastly denied ever doing anything wrong.Although the overwhelming view is that Decker tried too aggressively to pass Budd on the inside, Decker still maintains that Budd was in the wrong, not disqualified only because of politics.
Perhaps with Decker’s tremendous successes, such allegations were inevitable. In 1983, her greatest single year, Decker won every final she raced, was the number one ranked runner in the world at 1,500 and 3,000 meters, and set records spanning distances from 800 meters to 10,000 meters. Yet, for all her accomplishments, Mary Decker never won an Olympic medal. She was too young (13) to compete in the Olympic Trials in 1972, injured in 1976, kept out by the U.S. boycott in 1980, did not finish the race after falling in 1984, finished 10th in the 3,000 and 8th in the 1,500 in 1988, did not qualify in 1992, and did not advance to the finals in 1996. After 1996, age, injuries, and her prolonged challenge to the doping suspension, prevented further attempts. Nor did Zola Budd’s tremendous career include Olympic success. She missed the 1988 Games, banned from international competition because of an untrue report that she had raced in South Africa. Just before the Games in 1992, she came down with African tick bite fever, a recurring illness, and never fully regained her speed, effectively ending her professional running career.
Keiderling nicely takes the reader through the years after the collision at the 1984 Games, as each of the women come to terms in her own way with the incident, its aftermath, and fading professional running careers. A word of caution is in order, however; if you have a favorable impression of Mary Decker, this is not the book for you. The tone is set even before the first chapter, Keiderling thanks Zola Budd in the acknowledgements for her gracious assistance, recognizes the cooperation of all the other runners in the infamous 3,000 meters race at the 1984 Olympics, then notes that Decker was the only person who refused his multiple attempts for an interview. This is unfortunate, since Keiderling finds no shortage of people willing to talk about Decker, none of whom seem to have anything good to say except that she was an incredibly gifted athlete.
For example, several of Decker’s former coaches—and there were many—comment about the difficulty of training her. In part, this was because Decker eschewed all instruction regarding restraint; she went all out in every training session and insisted on running from the front in every race. In addition, she expected the total attention of her coach, no matter how many other athletes the coach was advising. This expectation apparently extended to her sponsors, with Decker expecting Nike to pay first-class airfare for her (then) husband Ron Tabb, even though Tabb was sponsored by rival company Adidas. Thus, Keiderling’s statement that while Decker, “a narcissistic, spotlight-craving athlete, was the brightest of the Nike stars,” (94) she “was not, and never would be, easy for Nike to handle” (92).
At various points throughout, Keiderling takes his own shots, referring to Decker as mean-spirited, spoiled, petulant, spiteful, bitter, acrimonious, accusatory, sour, prickly, difficult to deal with, a pouter and a whiner. To be sure, there are plenty of people, including other athletes and members of the media, who have a negative view of Decker, but the book begins to feel like a character assassination, especially since Budd is always described in the very most sympathetic terms, never more so than in the book’s final pages where she is described in saint-like terms (“she once was wrongly branded and reviled throughout the world”), comforting a woman dying of AIDS in a hospice in South Africa. I found this one-sidedness the only major flaw in an otherwise well-researched and fascinating account.
Copyright © Pam R. Sailors 2017
Originally published in Aethlon