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The Barefoot Assassin

Updated on September 27, 2014

Tale of events

Rarely does real life produce as much drama as a fiction novel, but 11th August 1984 was one of those occasions.

Zola Budd was an 18 yr old, raw talent, skinny barefoot middle-distance runner circumventing South Africa's international sports ban imposed due to its apartheid regime.

Mary Decker was the established, glamorous darling of US track and field.

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Zola Budd and Mary Decker

Both were world record calibre, setting a number of world bests during their careers, although Budd's earlier times in South Africa were never to be officially recognised. On arrival in Britain following an expedited citizenship approval, Budd had had her invitations to a number of domestic races withdrawn and was booed when she ran.

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1984 Los Angeles Olympics

The pair met in the Olympic 3,000m final on home soil for Decker.

Britain's political and athletics controversy was about to reach new heights. Mary Decker started as favorite for gold, but was about to reach new lows.

The fact was that neither of these runners had much experience or desire to run in the pack, or of competing with someone on their shoulder in a major final, but let's not spoil a good conspiracy theory.

Surely this couldn't be the result

The two athletes came into contact a couple of times during the race, but on the third occasion, as Budd took the inside line, Mary Decker went down, 80s perm and all, to lay stricken on the inside of the track. Budd faded later in the race and eventually finished 7th to a sound familiar to her - a chorus of boos. Mary Decker was carried weeping from the track in the arms of her British fiance, discuss thrower Richard Slaney.

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Zola Budd was later to be dubbed "The Barefoot Assassin" by the American press.

To this day Mary Decker remains the US women's record holder for the 1,500m, mile and 3,000m (and her perm ranks 37# in the Ultimate 50 Hairstyles on

The people of Soweto have an interesting name for the taxis that move at high speed around their township - they call them Zola Budds.

You can watch the event on YouTube, but this won't provide the controversy and excitement that led up to the race. If you do watch it, I recommend you listen to the commentary version most likely to appeal to your perspective.

Watch the race on YouTube - 5.43mins - American commentary

Watch the race on YouTube - 9.12mins - British commentary

Is this a balanced account of the events?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I vaguely remember the race but remember enough about the incident to agree with your description of what happened. Very cool lens.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I wouldn't know because I've never heard about this before, but an interesting topic nonetheless...