The greatest female distance runner in the world was in the midst of her obsessive quest to secure her first Olympic gold medal. It was a medal she was desperate to win after having missed the previous two Olympics -- in 1976 and 1980 -- because of an injury and a U.S. boycott.
But suddenly, halfway through the Olympic championship showdown in the 1984 Summer Games at the Los Angeles Coliseum, disaster struck for Mary Decker Slaney. It completely altered her life and career, as well the life of the woman who created the calamity, Zola Budd. Budd was the barefoot sensation from South Africa who created a worldwide controversy by obtaining last-minute British citizenship in order to race in the Olympics and evade the anti-apartheid ban on South African athletes.
It's another picturesque day in Los Angeles as the women's 3,000 Olympic race nears. The favorite is Decker, the U.S. world champion and America's queen of distance running. As the gun sounds, the runners take off in a cluster. Soon, there's separation. Decker, Budd and Wendy Sly of the U.S. are among the leaders as the race passes the halfway mark.
When the runners approach the 1,700-meter mark of the race, a box forms, a cluster of bodies merging together as one. The 18-year-old Budd, the barefoot wonder who captured the world's attention with her record-smashing performances and controversial political decision, moves a half-stride ahead of Decker.
Suddenly, Budd abruptly cuts in, slightly, on Decker. Suddenly, Decker gets tangled up in Budd's foot, and falls and crashes to the ground in agony. As Decker cries out with the pain of a torn hip muscle, tears running down her cheeks, and the vision of her Olympic dreams sprinting away before her eyes, boos are showered upon Budd. Budd is so distraught that she gives up, refusing to make any effort whatsoever to win the race. She winds up finishing seventh.
The end of the race is surreal, a total maze of confusion. No one really knows what's going on or what's going to happen. Is it true? Did America's running queen really tumble to the ground and lose her chance at her first gold medal -- again? Did the young and innocent Budd cause this disaster on purpose? Or was it an accident? Will the race stand?
Budd claims that when the mass of runners had come around the turn at the 1,700-meter mark, Sly veered close to Budd, trying to pass. That forced Budd to speed up and move closer to Decker. "Otherwise," Budd would say later, "Sly would have run into me." The move forces Budd to cut inside, at an angle that was too short, and boom -- she finds herself right on top of Decker.
Later, in the mass confusion of a world event, Budd shyly approaches Decker. But Decker, angry, bitter, heartbroken and depressed, tells her, "Don't bother," and she flicks her away like a pesky bug buzzing near your ear. Both leave the Coliseum, tears running down their faces, flanked by dozens of media members. Both refuse to comment on the controversial race.
Decker's injury prevents her from competing for the rest of the year. The anger and bitterness subside enough for Decker to write Budd a note, apologizing for her attitude and snippy remark. Budd later admits that yes, she cut in too quickly. Decker later admits she should have handled the situation better, saying, "I should have nudged her and let her know that she was cutting in at a dangerous angle."
The lives of both runners changed dramatically after the Los Angeles Games, both for the worse initially. But now, even though they'll both be remembered primarily for the Olympic disaster, they live in relative harmony. Time heals wounds of the past.