Category Archives: Running

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.

On the uselessness of running magazines

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I find myself, for the first time in twenty years, reading the running magazines. It is a curiously alienating experience. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the pages are given over to advertisements, for GPS watches capable of tracking a runner’s route and uploading it to a home computer (£250-£350), merino wool running tops (£75), running sunglasses (£125-£200), energy gels, ie snacks (£36 for three boxes), an “essential” personal trainer kit composed of a long strip of elastic (£150), etc.

When I was young, and an aspirant professional runner, I would have disdained the contents as useless. I wanted to run. I was fast, and effortlessly so. I was constantly seeking to simplify my running experience. One of the things I liked about running was precisely its separation from the cash-nexus. I could sprint on a track; I could run through fields of wet clay; neither of these required spending, neither experience would in way be enhanced if I was running in specially-designed sports socks rather than my ordinary size 9 black socks from Peter Jones

Now, I am a fun runner: I run for pleasure, and am only very loosely connected to a running club. My ambition is to run half a dozen times a year or less under someone else’s stopwatch. I run slowly and freely acknowledge the weight of my years, the absence of my former speed. Just avoiding injury is a sufficient goal. Before I was outside the magazine’s key demographic, that of the amateur runner, now I have by-passed it, and remain outside, but at the opposite pole.

An amateur runner is defined now by how regularly, quickly or happily they run, but by how often they purchase. The magazines provide quick bursts of training advice provided by physios-for-hire, the authors happily revealing their hourly and monthly fees in case a reader is looking for a personal trainer of their own. The (limited) content is given over to inspirational stories, tips on avoiding injuries. Advertisements for races emphasise that the uniqueness of every particular event: the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it provides for sea views, running at altitude, etc…

In the amateur runners’ magazines, there is a very strange tension between creativity and rule-following: a running-consumer is marked by their I-fear-no-one approach to running through Eastern European cities, across African wildernesses, etc. But should they make a mistake of warming-down by stretching (a 1980s throwback) or eating fatty food before a long run, then they can expect the full censure of an amateur culture that expects increasing uniformity of its consumers.

I have written before about how the running boom of the 1980s associated with the Coe-Ovett rivalry and the launch of the London Marathon has given way to the relative malaise of British elite running: there are fewer people in their 20s running, there are many more “ultra-marathon runners” but relatively fewer people capable of running seriously fast times

More people are wearing sports gear; fewer people are doing sports. The consumer-driven technologies are not leading to a general increase in sporting participation, rather they are “raising the bar”, making ordinary physical activity seem more demanding, more difficult, and a harder thing to do.

Readers of pornographic magazines are (notoriously) under- and not over-sexed. It is the same with sports porn.