Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

After The Fall: The Story Of Zola Budd

Illustration for article titled After The Fall: The Story Of Zola Budd

From Runner's World, Steven Friedman's 2009 story on Zola Budd:

Last autumn, at a pretty clearing nestled 3,333 feet above sea level in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, 194 female collegiate distance runners gathered to run a 5000-meter cross-country race.

Many were tall and slim, rangy and loose-limbed in the way of college-aged distance runners. They came from North Carolina State and Clemson and Davidson and Miami and other colleges and universities, and it's a safe bet that no matter what burdens any of them quietly carried–anxiety about grades, boyfriend troubles, or less specific but no less real woes–none had ever faced the combination of worldwide shame and personal loss that had battered the middle-aged woman in their midst.

She was neither tall nor slim nor rangy. She was 42, brown as a walnut, slightly thick in the middle. When the race started, she jumped in front. The young runners knew this was an open race, that oddballs could run if they wanted. But what was the runner in front thinking? Maybe she wanted to feel the sensation of leading a race. Maybe she would quit after a few hundred yards, then limp back to her grandkids and tell them about the day she led some real runners. Maybe she used to lead races, back in her day.

Some of the coaches looked at each other. She had a nice stride–there was power to it, and precision. She wasn't just a weekend jogger out for a laugh. The coaches could tell that, even if some of the young runners could not. She kept the lead even after a quarter mile. More coaches watched her, and for at least one of them, and maybe more, who beheld her curly hair, and her speed, and the way she had that little hitch in her style–elbows slightly too high, a little too wide–there was something familiar.

Illustration for article titled After The Fall: The Story Of Zola Budd

Mention the name Zola Budd to the casual track fan and you'll likely get one (or all) of three responses: Barefoot. South African. Tripped Mary Decker. Those were the boldest brush strokes of her narrative, and they continue to be. But the legend of Zola Budd is, like all legends, simple and moving and incomplete. It is made of half-truths, exaggerations, and outright lies. She did run barefoot–but so did everyone else where she grew up. She did refrain from speaking out against great and terrible injustice–but so did a lot of other people older and wiser. She did suffer stunning setbacks and tragic losses, but much of her misfortune was worse than people knew, the losses more complicated and painful than most imagined.

A lot of people thought she had disappeared and stopped running for good. But here she was.


[Photo Credit: Sabree Hill for the New York Times]

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