Nine for IX: 'Runner'

Directed by Shola Lynch

Film summary

The expectations were sky-high for American distance runner Mary Decker as she lined up to make her Olympic debut in the 3,000 meters at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Decker had displayed unwavering dominance in every distance (from 800 to 10,000 meters) heading into the event, and her wholesome image graced magazine covers and adorned walls all over the world.

At age 25, it was her first Olympics; stress fractures in her leg kept her out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and the U.S. boycott prevented her from competing in the 1980 Moscow Games. The 3,000 in L.A. was to be her coronation, the gold medal that would validate her greatness.

But there was another compelling figure in the race, a 19-year-old barefooted South African running for Great Britain, Zola Budd. Just past the midway point of the race, Budd crowded Decker on the inside lane and, in the panic and urgency of the moment, they collided. Decker fell to the track. Budd would regain her stride, but she finished a distant seventh behind the winner, Romania's Maricica Puica.

Decker initially blamed Budd, but in later years they reconciled and tried to get past the collision. Still, Decker's one moment of heartbreak came to define what should have been a glorious career.

"Runner" revisits one of the most infamous moments in sports history, and what life has brought the athletes since.

Director's bio: Shola Lynch
Lynch is an award-winning American filmmaker who burst on the scene in 2004. Her eagerly anticipated second feature documentary, "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," is a firsthand account of the events that thrust Angela Davis into the national spotlight; Davis went from being a young college professor to being a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. This complex film has challenged Lynch and showcases her progress as a promising director and producer.

Shola's first independent feature documentary, "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed," was about Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's historic run for president in 1972. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, aired on PBS's POV series, and garnered two Independent Spirit Award nominations and a prestigious Peabody for excellence.

Shola honed her filmmaking skills as a visual researcher and associate producer for Ken Burns and Florentine Films. Her work on the two-part "Frank Lloyd Wright" documentary and 10-part "Jazz" series inspired her to pursue the craft of storytelling. Since then she has produced and scripted stories that have aired on BET, CNN, ESPN, HBO Sports and PBS.

Shola holds a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and is working on a book based on her new film. She lives in Harlem, N.Y., with her husband and two young children, Julian and Violet.

Lynch: Personal statement
When I was 14 years old, I broke my first national track record in the 800 meters. Swept up in the race, I beat my older, more seasoned competitors almost by accident. Being aggressive in races did not come naturally. In 1984, I won the indoor girls' high school mile at the Millrose Games by setting the pace, not letting any challengers pass and sprinting to a clear victory. I had learned how to win. I had modeled my style on Mary Decker. I wanted to run like Mary.

When asked to pitch a story for ESPN's Nine for IX series, I thought of Decker. In her era, she dominated women's track, holding records in distances ranging from the 800 to 10,000 meters. She is the only American to regularly outsprint the Russian and Eastern European middle-distance runners, as she did to win the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the 1983 World Championship.

Despite her accomplishments, Decker is most remembered for the 1984 Olympics and the 3,000 final. She tangled with 17-year-old South African Zola Budd, fell and couldn't continue. The television cameras zoomed in on Decker writhing in pain. Filling the screen, the agony on her face left a permanent impression. Is 1984, and the fall, the defining moment in her career? Although she made the team in 1988, 1992 and 1996, she never won an Olympic medal. In the end, what is Decker's legacy?

I wondered if Decker, notoriously private, would open up about the highs and lows of her athletic career and life. When she agreed to sit down and talk, "Runner" sprang legs and took off toward the finish line.

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