As a 17-year-old, Budd broke the 5000 metres record, although the white teenager’s effort was not officially ratified as she lived in apartheid-era South Africa.
She grew up running in bare feet, as did the other children where she lived, and trained without footwear throughout her career. She did not always compete without shoes, contrary to popular belief, but did so in her most famous race in Los Angeles in 1984.
After a Daily Mail campaign – the paper also paid her family a lot of money for exclusive rights to her story – she applied for British citizenship in order to compete at the Olympics in LA. Her arrival in Britain was met with demonstrations, with people angry that a supposedly privileged white girl from South Africa was willing to defect in order to pursue personal ambition.
That was an unfair appraisal, as her family needed the Daily Mail money and she was largely ignorant of the segregationist policies of the government in her home country.
“Until I got to London in 1984, I never knew Nelson Mandela existed,” she said in 2002. “I was brought up ignorant of what was going on. All I knew was the white side expressed in South African newspapers – that if we had no apartheid, our whole economy would collapse.
“Only much later did I realise I’d been lied to by the state.”
Nevertheless, she set about realising her ambition by claiming the English 1500m title before setting a world record at 2000m, a distance that is rarely run. David Coleman, commentating for the BBC at the latter event as interest in the athlete grew, declared: “Zola Budd is no myth.”
If she was not a myth, her story was to become legend – though in unwitting circumstances. Decker, a childhood idol of Budd, had never run in the Games due to injury in 1976 and the US boycott of Moscow in 1980. In LA, in front of her home fans, could she finally claim 3000m gold?
Halfway through Budd passed the duo on the outside after Decker had set the pace and, coming back in, there was contact between the two of them and Budd was off-balance. She kept going and Decker caught Budd’s calf with her shoe before a third contact ended with Decker on the floor with Budd’s number in her hands.
The Coliseum booed Budd mercilessly and, after seeing her fallen idol crying on the track as she toured again, she began to hear the jeers. Several runners would pass her before the end, leaving her seventh.
“The main concern was if I win a medal,” Budd said later, “I’d have to stand on the winner’s podium – and I didn’t want to do that.”
The consensus today is that Budd did nothing wrong, it being incumbent upon the runner behind to avoid the stride of him/her in front. Yet Decker was furious with the teenager in the tunnel and blamed her in the press conference.
Officials disqualified Budd then, after viewing a video of the race, reinstated her an hour later.
Police then escorted her and her mother to the airport as telephone threats had been made against her life.
Decker wrote to her later in the year to apologise, but in interviews appeared unrepentant, saying she had lost just as much from an emotional incident.
Budd went on to win world cross-county championships in 1985 and 1986, and set world records in the 5000m and indoor 3000m.
A serious leg injury in 1987 robbed her of the chance to compete at Seoul the following year and, after complaints from several African countries that she had competed at an event in South Africa – she claimed she merely attended the meeting – the IAAF suspended her. She retired and returned to the land of her birth.
She competed as Zola Pieterse for post-apartheid South Africa at Barcelona ’92 in the 3000m, but did not make the final. After finishing fourth at the world cross-country championships, she disappeared from view.
So where is she now?
Budd refused to publicly condemn apartheid despite the overtures of many leaders, writing in her 1989 autobiography: “My attitude is that, as a sportswoman, I should have the right to pursue my chosen discipline in peace… Seb Coe does not get asked to denounce Soviet expansionism; and Carl Lewis is not required to express his view on the Contra arms scandal. But I was not afforded that courtesy and it became a matter of principle for me not to give those who were intent on discrediting me the satisfaction of hearing me say what they most wanted to hear.”
But the religious Budd’s true feelings were shown in that book: “The Bible says men are born equal before God. I can’t reconcile segregation along racial lines with the words of the Bible. As a Christian, I find apartheid intolerable.”
Budd had endured a broken relationship with her father – to the extent that he was banned from travelling to LA in 1984, which led to a complete severance of ties – and he threatened to omit his son Quintus from his will if, as asked, he gave away Zola at her wedding to Michael Pieterse. Frank Budd had in fact been invited to the ceremony also; five months later he would be shot and killed by a thief in his house.
She and her mother Tossie, who had also fallen out with Frank, could not attend his funeral as he effectively banned them from doing so in his will. Years later she said that he was homosexual, and that the fact could have contributed to his death. “Back then South African society didn’t accept homosexuals. It took a terrible toll on him.”
She also suffered heartache when her husband was revealed in the newspapers to have conducted an affair with a socialite named Pinkie, who reportedly phoned Zola to threaten her. Budd claimed that Pinkie had poisoned and killed one of her dogs. However after he broke off the affair, they reconciled, perhaps because of her family: they had a baby girl in 1995 and twins, a boy and girl, in 1998.
In her hometown Bloemfontein, the taxis are called Zolas, and she was referenced in a popular song in South Africa.
She no longer watches sport on TV – and has only seen the incident with Decker once, the day after it happened.
The family moved to the United States in 2008 on a visa to allow her to compete in Masters events – she has competed in that World Championships for South Africa – while she also coached the Coastal Carolina University’s women’s track team and studied for a master’s degree in counselling.
In the last decade she has completed several marathons, falling at 23 miles in the London Marathon in 2003, her first. She is now training for her first 55-mile ‘Comrades Marathon’ on June 5, finishing in Durban.