The Notorious Tangle of Feet Between Zola Budd and Mary Decker

It was the women’s 3,000-meter race final in the Olympics of 1984, and Zola Budd, a young, barefoot prodigy representing Britain, ran shoulder to shoulder against little Mary Decker, a fan favorite from America. In a matter of milliseconds, Budd and Decker collided, their legs entangling at full speed, resulting in a dramatic collapse – Decker’s collapse.

Mary Decker #373 of the United States, Zola Budd #151 of Great Britain
Mary Decker #373 of the United States, Zola Budd #151 of Great Britain. Photo by Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

She stumbled to the ground. Anguished and red-faced, Mary cried in despair as the rest of the runners flew past her. Her dreams of winning a medal disappeared in an instant. And Zola Budd? The guilt disabled her from running any faster. She slowly faded out of the race, ending in seventh place.

To this day, no one fully understands what happened. Did Budd cut in front of Decker to obstruct her chances of winning? Or did Decker shove Budd first, causing her to lose her footing?

Let’s set the record straight.

In the Blink of an Eye

The start of the women’s 3,000-meter race went as expected. Mary Decker flew ahead first, with Zola Budd basically breathing on her neck in second and Maricica Puica not far behind in third. For three rounds, Budd and Decker virtually teased each other, almost making contact in every turn.

Mary Decker Falling in 3000 Meter Race
Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

But the fourth round was the game-changer. Mary Decker’s historic fall happened so quickly that if you blinked, you missed it. One moment she was in the lead, and the next, she was on the grass beside the tracks wailing in anguish, lifting her disoriented gaze towards Budd’s back which gradually grew smaller and smaller as she ran off in the distance.

Who Pushed Whom?

For the first few seconds, the crowd was at a loss for words. But after the initial shock, different takes on the fall began spreading like wildfire. Did Decker push Budd? Did Budd shove Decker? Who was to blame for Mary’s excruciating fall? Even now, looking at shots from the scene, it’s difficult to put together what really happened.

South African runner Zola Budd (front, C) watches her chief competitor, American Mary Decker
Photo by Gilbert Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Ultimately, the medal was awarded to Maricica Puica. But the end of the race was only the beginning of the battle between Budd and Decker. Mary, the drama queen, was willing to put up a serious fight to shame Budd for her “wrongdoing.” Budd, on the other hand, just wanted the whole thing to end in peace.

A Barefoot Prodigy

Zola Budd was a mystery to many in the 1984 Olympics. The fierce runner was a mere 5-foot two-inch 18-year-old weighing 84 pounds who represented Britain, although everyone knew that her heart lay in South Africa, where she was raised.

Zola Budd breaks Women's 5000 Meter World Record 1985
Photo by Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

She became the subject of worldwide publicity and an easy target for the media who fabricated a narrative of frenzied tension between her and Decker in the weeks leading up to the game. In a twisted way, it was sort of like the media prayed for such a disastrous turn of events to occur.

Little Mary Decker, a Fan Favorite

Mary’s career leading up to the 1984 games was a mind-blowing, record-setting streak of triumphs. She began competing at just 14 and spent the first decade of her running breaking international records in distances as short as 800 and as far as 10,000 meters.

Mary Decker Slaney Running in the Olympic Trials
Photo by Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A swift and gifted athlete, Mary Decker rapidly became America’s most adored distance runner, and reporters were more than happy to set “Little Mary Decker” against the game’s enigmatic and controversial newcomer – Zola Budd.

Budd Wasn’t Supposed to Compete

At the time of the games, South Africa was banned from competing due to political troubles, so for Budd, stepping foot on the Olympics tracks wasn’t even an option. But she quickly learned that if one is good enough, there are people willing to help one’s dreams come true.

ola Budd breaks Women's 5000 meters World Record 1985
Photo by Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

This was the case for Budd, who, due to her undeniable talent (and her British grandfather), was able to receive a British passport allowing her to take part in the Olympic games.

While Budd was excited, others were bitter. Many saw her as a white, privileged young girl who represented the racist portion of her home country.

A Sisterly Bond

The only reason Zola got into running in the first place was to please her older sister Jenny. The two would do several laps, barefoot, around Bloemfontein, their South African hometown. But friendly rounds soon took on a different feel once it was evident that Zola’s athletic abilities were out of the ordinary.

Zola Budd at Crystal Palace
Photo by Jack Kay/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The sisters eventually took different paths. Zola was introduced to a running coach, while Jenny went into nursing, working mainly night shifts and catching glimpses of her sister only in the mornings when she came back from her shift and Zola left for school.

Running Helped Her Heal

When Zola was 14, her sister passed away after a long battle with melanoma. Their parents had shielded Zola from the troubles Jenny was experiencing, so the young runner found her sister’s “sudden” death terribly surreal and almost impossible to wrap her head around.

Zola Budd
Photo By Getty Images/ Allsport UK /Allsport

She channeled her frustration and grief into running by getting up at 4:45 each morning to exercise. When she would come back from school, she’d run for an additional two hours. This training went on for months, after which she entered a 4K run she’d previously lost. But this time, her dedication made a difference, and she won first place in the race.

“She Was in the Wrong”

Fast forward to 1984. The race is over, but the clash between the girls has only just begun. Still holding back the tears, Mary Decker speaks to the press about what she believes happened. “Zola Budd tried to cut in without being ahead,” she began.

Mary Decker is helped by olympic workers after being tripped up by Zola Budd
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

“I think her foot caught me, and to avoid pushing her, I fell. I mean, when I think about it now, I should have pushed her, but if I had, tomorrow the headlines would have been ‘Decker Shoved Zola.’” Decker firmly stood her ground during that speech, concluding with, “I don’t think there’s any question that she was in the wrong.”

Zola’s Side of the Story

Zola recalled that she found running in a bunch strange. She remembers having Wendy Sly on her right and Mary Decker close by her left shoulder, resulting in some brief brushings of the shoulders. But nothing prepared either of them for the imminent fall.

Premiere Of Sky Atlantic Original Documentary Feature
Mary Decker and Zola Budd. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The natural thing for Zola to do, she explained, was to push forward in order to free herself from the mesh of runners. But that’s when the problems began. Budd remembers being bumped and thrown off balance, and the next thing she knew, the crowd was booing, and Decker was on the ground.

She Wanted to Quit

For the remaining laps, Budd’s feet kept moving forward on autopilot, because her mind had clearly drifted someplace else. She felt it was entirely her fault that Mary was out of the race and gradually convinced herself to slow down and quit the race.

Mary Decker is attended to on track as Zola Budd runs the track
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Budd finished seventh. And although she undoubtedly could have fought to be in the top three, her guilt and worries crippled her motivation to keep going. “It was like your worst nightmare coming true. I just wanted to get on the plane, go back home, and never see another track for the rest of my life again.”

She Asked for Forgiveness

After the race, Budd spotted Mary crawled up in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably. She went up to her and said, “I’m sorry,” but Mary lashed back with a bitter, “Don’t bother!” The frustration was understandable; her dreams had been shattered in a split second with that dramatic fall.

Mary Decker is helped off the track by her boyfriend Richard Slaney
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Yet her feelings towards the event didn’t seem to cool off, no matter how many months had passed. Decker was enraged, pointing fingers at Zola every chance she had. Interviews, press conferences – it was all about how the young South African ruined it for her.

An Eyewitness

The audience booed when Mary hit the ground. But they grew to understand that it wasn’t necessarily Zola who was at fault. Another runner, Cornelia Bürki, had witnessed the incident from up close and shared what she had seen:

Mary Decker (L) And Zola Budd at a Press conference before they race
Photo by Tim Clayton/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

“I saw what happened,” Bürki explained. “I saw Mary pushed Zola from the back. Zola overtook Mary and Mary didn’t want to give that position in front. Mary ran into Zola from the back. As she fell down, she pushed Zola.” Bürki also witnessed Zola’s sincere apology after the race.

Zola Went Through a Lot of Shaming

According to Bürki, when Zola approached Mary, the devastated runner responded by screaming at her. “I’ll never forget that,” Bürki recalled. “Zola being such a shy person, her shoulders dropped. It could have happened in any race, and it wasn’t Zola’s fault, but the blame was on her. For any young girl to cope with that, that was very difficult.”

Los Angeles Olympic Games - Women's 3000m Final
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Mary clearly milked the situation, continuously speaking against her in public. But, ultimately, after many years apart, the two decided it was time for some closure. They reconnected over the making of their documentary titled “The Fall.”

Much Needed Closure

The two runners finally had time to spend together and an opportunity to get to know one another beyond running, beyond the race, beyond the dramatic stumble. “One of the reasons both of us decided to do this [the documentary] is that it hopefully will give us closure,” Zola explained.

Premiere Of Sky Atlantic Original Documentary Feature
ohn Battsek, Mary Decker, Zola Budd and Daniel Gordon. Photo by Luca Teuchmann/WireImage

Even Mary managed to put their tense history behind. “The reason I fell,” she admitted, “some people think she tripped me deliberately. I happen to know that wasn’t the case at all. The reason I fell is because I am and was very inexperienced in running in a pack.”

Zola Budd Simply Ran

Both athletes have put their brief stint at the Olympics behind them. Up until 2019, Zola worked as a full-time assistant track-and-field coach at Coastal Carolina University. Today, she resides in Myrtle Beach, where she lives with her husband, Mike, and their three children.

IAAF World Athletics Gala Awards
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Regarding her career, Zola confessed that she “never strived to be the best in the world.” The South African wonder explained, “I just ran every day, I just ran.” From her early days running laps for fun with her sister to dominating the Olympics, Zola Budd just ran.

Decker’s Body Paid a Heavy Price

Throughout her career, Decker was terribly injury-prone and underwent over 30 surgeries. Today, she has arthritis, and it’s virtually impossible for her to run without pain. So, instead of hitting the tracks, she keeps fit by working out on an outdoor elliptical bike nearly every day.

Stirling Marathon
Stirling Marathon. Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images

Mary reportedly competes in the World ElliptiGO Championships in San Diego every autumn. And while she still looks fit enough to run five miles, Decker prefers long walks with her four dogs in the woods near her home in Oregon, where she lives with her husband, Richard.

Zola Budd’s Dad Was Odd

Zola’s dad, Frank Budd, was a bit sketchy. And strange. He arranged her widely publicized move to England and took most of the money for himself – most of the £100,000 that The Daily Mail reportedly paid for the exclusive rights to her story.

Zola Budd of Great Britain chats to her coach at Crystal Palace in London
Photo By Getty Images/ Allsport UK /Allsport

Moreover, his ambition in life was to be insanely rich and shake the Queen’s hand. But ultimately, he was murdered in 1989 by a South African farmer who claimed that he acted in self-defense after Frank tried to pull a funny move on him.

Zola Ran Barefoot, yet She Was Sponsored by Shoe Brands

Zola is one of the best-known barefoot runners in the history of sports. But, funnily enough, she’s actually been sponsored by a string of shoe companies all through her career, including companies like Brooks and Newton.

1984 Olympics, Women'S 3000M - Finals, Zola Budd (Grb) And Mary Decker (Usa).
Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

To this day, Zola Budd isn’t quite sure why people find it strange to run barefoot. “It’s just a lifestyle,” she told The New York Times. “My kids went to school barefoot. It’s normal.” She’s a firm believer in letting kids run around barefoot and says that she feels like in the U.S., parents “bubble wrap” their young ones.

South Africa Still Remembers Zola

Zola’s reputation as a groundbreaking runner made her an unforgettable figure in South Africa. So much so, that minibus taxis driving across the country are named after her speed! Locals often say, “Only a Zola will get me there.”

Zola Budd of South Africa
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Zola’s name has also appeared in a song by musician Brenda Fassie, who released a track in 1980 called “Zola Budd.” It’s clear that this exceptional talent’s performances through the years have made South Africans incredibly proud.

Mary Decker’s Drug Controversy

In 1996, Decker’s career took a wrong turn after she failed a drug test for testosterone at the 1996 U.S. Olympics Trial. But she kept on racing, competing at the Atlanta Olympics, and at the 1997 World Indoor Championships, where she a silver award for the 1,500 run.

IAAF Grand Prix Final
Photo by Steve Powell/Getty Images

Eventually, news of her test blew up in May of 1997. The International Association of Athletics Federations suspended her, but she was in the clear after the USA Track & Field argued that her positive test might have been a result of taking birth control pills and drinking alcohol the evening before taking the test.

Zola Budd Didn’t Know Who Nelson Mandela Was

When Zola landed in England in 1984 under a passport of convenience to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics for Great Britain, she was criticized for being somehow linked to the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa. But Zola was so naïve at the time that she had never even heard of Nelson Mandela.

Stirling Scottish Marathon Photocall
Photo by Jeff Holmes/PA Images via Getty Images

“Until I got to London in 1984, I never knew Nelson Mandela existed,” Budd told a reporter in 2002. “I was brought up ignorant of what was going on. All I knew was what the white side expressed in South African newspapers — that if we had no apartheid, our whole economy would collapse. Only much later did I realize I’d been lied to by the state.”

The Pain in Decker’s Face Was the Ultimate Private Moment

Photographer David Burnett, the man who captured Decker’s unforgettable fall, had his images published in TIME magazine. They went on become some of the most published sports photos of the decade. “There was an oddly personal tone to it,” he explained.

Mary Decker is helped by olympic workers
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Burnett explained that Mary Decker’s face “so raw and apparent, was something [that] almost should have remained the private moment.” Yet it was a moment that was seen by the 75,000 people in the stadium, and the millions around the world via TV. It was such a “raw public-private moment.”

Going to the 1984 Games Was a Bad Decision

In retrospect, Zola Budd admits that attending the 1984 Olympic game was probably one of the worst decisions she made. “It was way too early in my career, I did not have enough experience running races at that level, and I was still very young coming from SA,” she noted.

Budd & Decker in 3000m final
Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Zola spent the weeks before the games worried about competing against world champion Maricica Puica and, in general, just missing her family. It wasn’t the greatest time of her life. For Budd, it was more of getting into the Olympics and getting over with it as fast as possible.

Zola Couldn’t Win Either Way

Zola and Mary’s tangle of feet was a great story for the media. But it’s clear that the incident went way overboard just to make some money selling magazines and papers about it. When things blew up, Zola realized that regardless of the run’s result, she wouldn’t really come out a winner.

Mary Decker Crying in Pain on Track
Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

“I felt then that even if I had won the gold medal, it wouldn’t have mattered because I would still be branded an outcast. I couldn’t win either way, so for me, the 1984 Games were a lose-lose situation,” she explained. She already came in the games as a controversial figure, and the slip-up was just more fuel to the already fuming blaze.

Her Career Didn’t End After 1984

Many people assume Budd’s career faded out after 1984. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The runner rebounded from the incident and had the best years of her career in 1985 and 1986. She won the World Cross Country Championships twice and even raced with Mary on a few occasions.

Paula Radcliffe of Bedford and County
Photo By Phil Cole/Getty Images

In 1992, she competed for South Africa in the 3,000m at the Olympics in Barcelona but sadly failed to qualify after an unfortunate tick-bite left her too sick to participate. To this day, nearly 35 years later, Budd still holds junior world records in distances ranging anywhere from a mile to 3,000m.

Decker Still Pushes Her Body to the Limit

Despite Mary Decker’s arthritis, her hunger to push her body to its limit hasn’t diminished one bit. She still enjoys discovering her body’s boundaries and still loves to win for winning’s sake. In 2015, for example, she went on her fourth race on an elliptical bike up the Palomar Mountain.

Mary Decker-Slaney, Zola Budd-Pieterse, Krishna Stanton
Zola Budd-Pieterse, Mary Decker-Slaney, Krishna Stanton. Photo by Andrew Meares/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Since then, she vows to keep competing until she wins the women’s title, something that she hasn’t managed to do yet. Despite her reputation as a hot-headed and difficult athlete, Decker is actually a charming, likable, and emotional person.

Decker’s Impressive Run

In 1983, “Little Mary Decker” won gold medals in both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the first world championships at Helsinki, officially coining the term “the double Decker.” She’s also the only athlete ever to hold each American record from 800 to 10,000 meters.

Mary Decker Slaney and Others in the 10,000 Meter Run
Photo by Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Over her long and fruitful career, Decker has set 36 American records and 17 world records. She’s also qualified for four Olympic teams, despite never winning a medal. If she wouldn’t have tripped that day in 1984, there’s a slight chance she would have won.

The Fall

In 2016, a documentary surrounding the historic event was released. They called it The Fall, and it centered around Decker and Budd’s lives leading up to the event, the incident itself, and how it changed their lives forever.

Premiere Of Sky Atlantic Original Documentary Feature
Photo by Luca Teuchmann/WireImage

The film reunited the two women, 30 years later, ending their unfortunate mishap on a peaceful note. The documentary was directed by David Gordon and received fantastic reviews. The Guardian gave it a four out of five stars, calling it “gripping” and “a fascinating dramatic finale.”

Did Zola Budd Lose on Purpose?

Budd ended in seventh place. And she did so deliberately. She slowed down as the crowd booed her and the guilt ate away at her. “I just felt I didn’t want to stand on the winner’s rostrum. I knew I could have won a medal,” she told KING-TV.

1984 Summer Olympics
Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

Stepping back like that highlights exactly who Zola was at the time – a humble, brash teenager who really didn’t mean any harm and definitely didn’t deserve the loud and angry boos. The whole thing was blown way out of proportion. Thankfully, no one is mad anymore. If anything, fans believe she should have kept running to win first place.