The flowering of Zola Budd

2012-01-13 00:00

ON the far side of the field, the women’s race leader heads to the finish. There’s no Chariots of Fire to bring her home. No hostile reporters to bring her down. The crowd is mute, doesn’t notice her, doesn’t recognise those arms akimbo, that earnest stride. Maybe it’s because she’s wearing shoes. Maybe it’s been too long. She crosses the line. Suddenly it dawns: it’s Zola Budd. The name crackles through the crowd. The years vanish. There’s a champion in our midst.

How was the run? “Hard,” says Budd. Is the legend mortal after all? Admittedly, the Ronnie Darvel race is a punishing 16-kilometre route through the Hilton plantations. It’s hilly. It’s muggy. It’s hard at the best of times. But what Budd doesn’t mention is that she jetted in from the United States where she lives, less than 48 hours before, ran a 12 km trail run in sweltering Durban in the meantime and then rose at dawn to get to Maritzburg in time for the race. Hard: a good description too of a life tinged by tragedy, where triumph has seldom been unalloyed by tribulation and where, in spite of everything, running has always been salvation. The difference is that while running once was her life, something that drove her and to which she was driven, it is now more calculatingly an escape, a means to find peace. The bumper sticker on her car, she tells me, sums it up: “Running is cheaper than therapy.”

But running has also cost her dearly. Zola Budd is a name that launched 1 000 taxis. It’s the name of a Brenda Fassie song. It was attached to a world record and still is to a few junior ones. But it brought vilification for busting the sports boycott and because Budd did not denounce apartheid when her critics demanded it.

Heartache seems always to have been part of her life. The early death of an older brother she never knew hung heavy in the home and may ultimately have played a role in her parents’ divorce many years later. Her elder sister Jenny died aged 25 in hospital while being treated for a melanoma when Budd was 14. It was this that spurred the barefoot prodigy from Bloemfontein to throw herself completely into running. By the time she was 18 she had set a world best in the 5 000 metres, which wasn’t recognised because of South Africa’s isolation. But it brought attention in the form of a £100 000 offer from a British tabloid to fast-track her citizenship claim based on her father’s ancestral visa and to run under the Union Jack at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

It all ended in tears when she was blamed for sending America’s sweetheart and Budd’s own heroine and rival­, Mary Decker Slaney, sprawling out of the 3 000-metre final. The consensus of history is that Budd was not responsible and that Slaney had precipitated the clash herself. Budd finished seventh, deliberately throwing a podium finish so that she wouldn’t have to stand up in front of a belligerent, booing crowd. As it turned out she got death threats and had to be escorted under armed guard to catch her plane home. America hated her, South Africa hated her, she was no longer speaking to her father Frank and she didn’t even have a medal to show for it all. She did go on the next year to smash the world 5 000-metre record (held by Slaney), officially this time, and win two world cross-country championships. By 1989, at the age of 23, her biography was out and her career was effectively over and she was married. Her parents were divorced and her father, a closet gay, was killed that year by a man who claimed he had made advances on him. She never reconciled with him, he didn’t attend her wedding and he banished her in his will from attending his funeral.

That’s a lot to be angry about, and at the time, says Budd, the only person she wasn’t angry with was her mother, Tossie. Regrets? She says she was a different person back then, and while she won’t quite say she’s “thankful” for what happened to her, she does “appreciate” it for what it’s made her.

Inevitably, she says she has strong political views now. She did, all those years ago, before 1994 when it became fashionable, denounce discrimination on the basis of biblical injunction. Avoiding the tags of “conservative” or “liberal” (although she proudly points out that her children were alone in their class to support Barack Obama for president), she calls herself a humanist. By this she holds that “every person should be seen as an individual, with strong and weak points”, whose rights need to be asserted against what she calls the “mentality of the mob”. To go along with the mob, she says, is to abdicate all responsibility and make accountability impossible. What are her views on quotas in sport? “It’s a fine balance,’’ she says. “At development level it’s important, but at international level you have to field your best people … it’s too tough otherwise.’’

She’s become a regular competitor on the American masters circuit. This is the official reason she left Bloemfontein in 2008 to settle in Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. In truth, she left with her daughter, twin sons and husband Mike Pieterse to save her marriage after he’d had a well-publicised affair. It seems to have worked. Does that mean she won’t be coming back to South Africa, especially since she now has her green card? She yearns to, she says, because “this is still the most wonderful country”, but with her daughter about to go into high school the timing’s not right. So she’s optimistic about South Africa then? “If the Dalai Lama can visit, then yeah.” In the meantime she’ll continue to shuttle to Bloemfontein where her roots are and where Mike still has business interests. America does have its appeal: it’s law-abiding, for one. But it’s over-regulated, and she would prefer to be in a society that’s more relaxed and where the children can go barefoot to school. She holds on to South Africa by speaking exclusively Afrikaans at home.

She still likes to run barefoot, but old injuries and training over distance mean she limits it mainly to warming up on the field. What does she mean by distance? She’s training to do this year’s Comrades Marathon­, she says. She has a couple of marathons under her belt, and is logging about 80 to 90 kilometres a week now but says she’s aiming at 140 to 150. Beyond that she’ll get injured she says, although by general standards she’s been relatively untroubled by the usual toll of injuries.

Time? She’s aiming at a silver (sub 7:30) and with Bruce Fordyce as her adviser it should be eminently achievable. But she says she’ll wait and see how it goes on the day. Her times are still more than respectable: she can still do 17,40 for five kilometres on the track, three minutes slower than her world-beating performance so many years ago. But a Comrades silver is as competitive as she’ll admit to being. The wisdom born of adversity comes out strongly. But I suspect there are two Zolas.

There’s Zola Pieterse, which is what she calls herself in the U.S., the devoted mother and student of psychology who has just completed her Masters in pastoral counselling. This is the Zola who says “use running as a tool, not just an outcome”. Sounding like someone out of a Nissan ad, she says the secret to a good life is to be ‘‘process driven’’.

And then there’s Zola Budd, the one with racing colours­. She may be a tannie now and eight kilograms heavier than the waif who conquered the world, but under that nut-brown skin those legs of teak aren’t for show: she’s nothing if not taai.

Even on a lazy Sunday morning in Hilton she can’t keep those competitive juices under control. Zola is as Zola does, and she still does it the only way she knows how: fast.

Above: Zola Budd and the line of shoes she’s promoting while in South Africa.

Above: Zola Budd in 1984, breaking Mary Decker's 5 000-metre world record. 

What's Zola Budd doing in town?

SHE'S promoting the Newton brand of running shoes.

What's special about them?

THEY'RE designed to mimic barefoot running by pitching the athlete forward onto the middle and front of the foot, and away from the heelstrike stride.

Why not just run barefoot?

BAREFOOT running is catching on, especially following the publication of Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, which argued persuasively that humans' key evolutionary advantage over other animals is the ability to run great distances and that our feet are designed to do it barefoot. But running great distances on the road and in the cold is more than most people are prepared to do, so Newton shoes offer some comfort without destroying what we're designed to do.

Do they work?

WITNESS athletics correspondent Norrie Williamson is trying out a pair, so watch out for his verdict soon.

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