Zola Budd and the futility of winning

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I have written elsewhere about Coe and Ovett as runners; about the pleasure that Ovett took in detaching himself from top-class competition, and about the joylessness with which Coe raced and won. This is by no means an isolated story; the history of top-class sport is littered with instances of athletes cursed by talent.

The South African athlete Zola Budd is a case in point.

On 5 January 1984, aged just 17, Budd took part in a 5,000 metre race in Stellenbosch. Racing barefoot, almost alone, and defying the heavy winds, she produced lap after lap at an extraordinarily steady pace of 72 seconds. Her time of 15:01.83 was six seconds faster than Mary Decker’s world record.

Budd became a sporting celebrity; wooed by universities in America, her cause was taken up by David English, the editor of Britain‘s Daily Mail. English decided, as part of his paper’s support for apartheid-South Africa (then subject to an Olympic ban), to take up Budd’s cause. The Mail brought the Budds to England, promising them hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash, and in just 10 days managed to obtain British citizenship for the athlete.

“A Flight To A Stormy Haven” is how Sports Illustrated reported Budd’s departure from South Africa.

Budd won the British Olympics trials, and was selected to run in Los Angeles, clashing in her final with Decker, who fell to the track. Booed by the stadium, Budd was desperate for the race to end, slowing down and eventually finishing seventh.

Budd was desperate not to return to England, where the Mail kept her and her family under conditions of virtual house arrest.

Her parents’ marriage broke up, and her father instructed in his will that Zola should not be allowed to his funeral, nor be buried alongside him in the family plot.

“When I was a child, running gave me a means of escape and direction to my life”, Budd has said. The victory at Stellenbosch deprived her of that pleasure.

“I have always told people that it was about the worst thing that could have happened to me, as it resulted in four years of trauma with a handful of bright spots in between … 5 January 1984 was probably the worst day of my life.”

In sport, as in life generally, winning isn’t anything.

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