He’s been at it again! James Sullivan has already interviewed some of the top runners in Ireland and overseas for us (and with plenty more in the pipeline) but today he had a chat with someone who was involved in one of my earliest athletics memories. Step forward Zola Budd…
Zola Budd is a former elite female middle distance runner from Bloemfontein, South Africa. Famous for usually training and racing barefoot, in January 1984 at the age of 17 she recorded a time of 15:01.83 for 5000m, the fastest time ever recorded by a woman at the time. However it was not ratified as a world record due to the ban at the time on South Africa from competing in international sporting events due to its apartheid policy.
Later that year Budd applied for UK citizenship on the grounds that she had a British Grandfather. Her request was approved in time to allow her to compete at the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. Her application and arrival was controversial however due to the opposition of anti-apartheid campaigners. Competing in the 3000m, Budd was among the favourites to win a medal, but just over half way through the race, when leading, collided with crowd favourite Mary Decker of the USA, resulting in the American falling and failing to finish the race. Clearly distressed by the crowds reaction to the incident Budd faded towards the end of the race and finished 7th. Debate still exists to this day about whether Decker or Budd was at fault for the collision.
After the Olympics Budd went on to win the World Cross-Country Championships twice (1985 and 1986). In 1985 she broke the world record for 5000m with a clocking of 14:48.07 and set UK records over 1500m (3:59.96), the mile (4:17.57) and 3000m (8:28.83). She remains the UK record holder for the mile and is still 2nd on the UK all time list for 1500m, 3000m and 5000m.
Budd currently resides in South Carolina and competes on the US Masters circuit.
James: Thank you Zola for taking the time to talk with The Running Review. So to begin, how did you first get involved in running?
Zola: I could always run faster than my cousins and beat them at running games when I was young. I have no ball sense and swim like a rock, so running came naturally.
James: At what moment in your life did you realise that running would become more than just a hobby for you?
Zola: After my sister passed away when I was 14, I put all my energy into running.
James: After gaining UK citizenship before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics you received a lot of unfair criticism by the local press and were treated like a scapegoat for the problems in South Africa at the time. How difficult was this period of your life, considering you were just 18 years of age?
Zola: It was a very difficult time. I was made to feel personally responsible for what was going on in South Africa and was an easy target. It put a lot of strain on our family as well.
James: You became so successful and famous at such a young age. How did you cope with the fame and media scrutiny that came with this?
Zola: It is something you have to live with. You realise you will never be able to satisfy people’s opinions about you and I stopped trying to change them. I just live my life according to my ability and stopped living it according to other people’s expectations. It is a big paradigm shift and took me a while to do.
James: I couldn’t possibly go through an interview with Zola Budd without a brief discussion on that infamous 3000m final at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Much has been written and said about the incident between yourself and Mary Decker and people still debate even now about who was at fault. Considering athletes falling is part and parcel of middle distance running, do you feel that the media reaction and indeed the response of Mary herself was completely over the top?
Zola:I knew before the race that neither me nor Mary would win. I was hoping for at least a bronze medal. The hype between me and Mary gave other athletes a stress free run into the games. I don’t feel responsible for what happened. Just sad that it did happen.
James: After Decker fell you were greeted with a disgusting and unfair level of booing by the local crowd, and you faded badly towards the end of the race, finishing 7th when it looked like a medal was there for the taking. How would you describe this experience? How did this harsh treatment affect you during the closing laps of the race?
Zola:I was brainwashed by my coach never to stop in a race and I just kept going, but I consciously did not want to end up on the winners rostrum.
James: Do you and Mary speak much nowadays? Did you ever reconcile?
Zola:No, we did race against each other in 1985 and I ran all my best times behind her. We did reconcile.
James: After the Olympics you went on to achieve great success over the next two years, twice winning the World Cross-Country Championships and breaking the world record over 5000m. Do you feel that the experience in Los Angeles made you stronger and tougher? Did it help you to develop as an athlete and as a person?
Zola:I think LA put my whole life into perspective. Running was important but I realised if I could emotionally survive the 84 games, the rest of my running career could not be any worse!
James: After 1994 you stopped competing, despite being relatively young. What were your reasons for moving away from the sport?
Zola:I probably ran the best race of my life in 1993 where I came 4th in the world cross country championships and the next year I came 7th. The year after that I was pregnant with Lisa.
James: Do you ever reflect on what you have achieved throughout your career, or is this something which you consider to be long in the past, a different life? How important are your sporting achievements to you in the grand scheme of things?
Zola:It is good to know that I can push my body and mind to a certain limit. However, when it comes to my family, it is a life far removed. I try to keep Zola Budd separate from my family. To them I am just their boring mom.
James: Which one moment from your career are you most proud of?
Zola:My first 800m championship win in South Africa when I was 15 years old. I was so surprised to be able to win a South African championship. I still have the red bag I won on that day.
James: You have recently started competing on the US Masters circuit. How important is running in your life nowadays?
Zola:Very important. I have a sticker on my car which reads: Running is cheaper than therapy, and I guess that is why I run.
James: You were constantly questioned about the problems in South Africa during your competitive career. Does it bother you that people mix politics with sport?
Zola:No, it does not bother me that people mix politics and sport because it is linked in some perverse way. What bothers me is the inconsistencies you find. For instance what is happening in Zimbabwe, Congo and other African countries are gross violations of human rights, but nothing is done about it. Zimbabwe still plays in the World Cup Cricket. What bothers me most is peoples attitudes towards black on black violence and racism. It took a massacre on the scale of what happened between the Hutus and Tutsis for the world to react. That is the worse form of racism, that people just don’t care when black on black violence occurs.
James: You famously ran barefoot during your career. Why did you choose to run this way? What advantages do you feel this has over using running shoes or spikes and would you recommend other runners to adopt a similar approach?
Zola:It was so much cheaper! That is the way we grew up in South Africa. Always going barefoot and I was one of many athletes. The first woman in South Africa to run under 2 minutes for 800m ran barefoot and our top sprinter ran barefoot as well. It was normal and accepted to go barefoot.
James: What are your thoughts on Vibrams. Do you believe that they are worthwhile or a waste of money?
Zola: Yes, I think they are great shoes. I broke my toe last year and cant run in them. I also prefer running in Newtons which gives more support, especially if you have problems with plantar fasciitis.
James: What is the most important piece of advice you have for all runners, regardless of ability?
Zola: Nietzsches quote comes to mind: “If you know why you do something, you can do anything”. Run according to your own goals and do not be deterred by what other people think and/or say. Running is not getting to the finish line, it is living to it.
James: That’s great Zola. Thank you very much for your time.
Zola: No problem.