When the waif of the Veldt had Fleet St on the run

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: It is one of the greatest sports news stories of the last 25 years. Conceived at the Daily Mail, it was an old-fashioned buy-up that embraced front and back page issues including international politics, race, Olympic glory and a seemingly vulnerable teenaged girl. RANDALL NORTHAM recounts the story of Zola Budd

A short news item on the web from South Africa caught my eye in the summer. “Zola Budd denies she is emigrating to the USA”, it said. Ah. Happy memories.

It brought back to me the whole tragi-comedy. Zola Budd, the waif from the Veldt, in a story that showed publicity fuelled gimmicks are not the sole preserve of New Labour.

The facts were that on January 5, 1984, at the Coetzenburg Stadium in Stellenbosch, Zola Budd, from Bloemfontein, the epi-centre of apartheid, broke the 5,000 metres world record at the age of 17. Not only that, but she ran in bare feet. Of course, South Africa was still strangled by a tyranny that crushed the majority of its people. Nelson Mandela’s release was still six years away. Thus Budd’s run was not recognised by the IAAF, the world track body, and she could not run internationally.

But then, in the manner of the pantomime it became: oh yes, she could! For in London it became known that Budd had a British grandfather, which opened up all sorts of possibilities. The Daily Mail was soon on to the story, with the help of the Thatcher government and the shameful acquiescence of the International Olympic Committee and British Amateur Athletic Board (as it was then).

The Mail, prompted by David English, the editor, sent Neil Wilson and Brian Vine out to South Africa to see what could be done. “It was not the idea of the Daily Mail sports desk (sadly, can’t claim it) but of David English himself
after John Bryant (then features editor) had suggested a feature on Zola by our Cape Town corr Peter Younghusband,” Wilson recalls.

Wilson and Vine were not the only ones who went. Veteran athletics photographer Mark Shearman had visited the Budd family farm and taken a set of pictures of Zola running alongside ostriches which were prominently used in Running magazine.

“I don’t think Mark realised how dangerous ostriches can be,” Zola told me a few years later.

Vine and Wilson worked their magic (and got out the Mail‘s cheque book for £40,000, a house and a job for her father) and Frank Budd, Zola’s father, greedily agreed. On March 23, 1984, Zola, her father and her mother, Tossie, were driven in a black Mercedes to Jan Smuts international airport in Johannesburg, where they boarded KLM flight 594 for Amsterdam. They were then spirited by private plane from Holland to Southampton.

With Wilson and the redoubtable Vine guarding her, once the story broke, the rest of Fleet Street’s athletics and news reporters were set on the hunt to track her down to the Mail‘s “home counties hideaway”, while the desks did their best to knock down their rival’s story. If memory serves me right, the Daily Express‘s front page headline on the day she arrived was “Zola Go Home”.

And track her down they did: according to Wilson, Budd wrote to a girlfriend back in South Africa whose bloke was a snapper on the Johannesburg Star. Zola said in her letter that she was in a house the middle of a forest where there were lots of ponies. In no time at all, she was traced to Bramshaw, in the New Forest, and with Zola in tow, Wilson and Vine had to arrange a modern-day version of the moonlight flit to another rented house, this time in Guildford.

On April 5, within two weeks, Budd had got her British passport – her first UK all-comers’ record.

Budd’s debut competitive appearance on a British track was on cinders at Dartford, running for her newly acquired club, Aldershot, Farnham & District, on a Saturday afternoon. It remains the only time that the modest Southern women’s league has been covered live on BBC’s Grandstand. I still smile at the thought of her running barefoot while reporters and television camera crews jostled for the best view on the open, public track.

Later her coach, Pieter Labuschagne flew in to England and joined her, bewildered at the level of interest in his athlete. Zola, shy and tongue-tied in her second language, English, relied on Labschagne to translate into Afrikaans during some interviews. They were strangers in a strange land. Small and frail – she was 5ft 2in tall and barely 6st, and off the track she often wore round, over-sized glasses – it was easy to feel sympathy.

It was also easy to feel sympathy for the anti-apartheid demonstrators who tried and succeeded sometimes disrupting her when competing. Of course, papers like the Daily Mail parroted the usual rubbish about sport and politics not mixing. But not even the people who claim that believe it, surely?

If you want the story you can go to Amazon and search out Zola: The Official Biography. The cheapest, last time I looked, was £4.63, but beware it’s only 94 pages long. It lists the authors as Zola Budd and Brian Vine and it was ranked at 2,536,457.

I used to have a copy, but I didn’t keep it because being published in July 1984, before the Los Angeles Olympics, it couldn’t give the whole story. Next time someone tells you that the publishing business today is a nonsense because some mere 21-year-old sports star is producing an book of their life story, remind them gently about Zola: The Official Biography.

There was, though, little doubt about the girl’s potential. In order to get a race away from the constant protests in Britain, Budd was flown to Norway for a road run against Ingrid Kristiansen and Grete Waitz, the then marathon world champion. “She’s the greatest prospect I’ve ever seen,” Waitz declared after being run hard almost all the way by the teenager over the hilly Oslo road course.

Budd won the British Olympic 3,000 metres trial and duly gained selection for the Games with Wendy Sly and Jane Furniss.
In the build-up, the anticipated race in Los Angeles was billed as Budd versus Decker, because America’s darling Mary Decker-Slaney (she was married to British discus thrower Richard Slaney) had won a formidable 1,500-3,000-metre double at the previous year’s inaugural World Championships in Helsinki.

With the big threats from the Soviet Union absent from Los Angeles because of a boycott, wunderkind Budd, now in a GB vest, was surely the one woman between Slaney and gold in California. Budd’s unrecognised world record set in Stellenbosch that January had been 15min 01.83sec – some seven seconds better than the world best, set by Slaney in 1982.

To increase the expectations of Budd, she was sent off to the Olympics after running a world record, albeit over the rarely run 2,000 metres distance, of 5:33.15 in front of her new “home” crowd at Crystal Palace in July.

For the purists among us – and alas I am one – the real favourite was Maricica Puica, a tough-as-old-boots bottle-blonde from Romania and the world’s fastest in 1984, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of the story. And what a story it was to become.

All the main contenders made it through to the final which proceeded quickly enough but uneventfully until just after halfway. Slaney was controlling the pace from the front. Budd ran wide and then cut in for the inside lane. Her long, skinny legs, as usual without shoes on her feet, looked more gangling than usual pitted up against these grown women.

Then came the fateful moment. Slaney, moving to her left, caught her trailing leg and tripped, falling painfully against the kerb of the track. The crowd willed her to get up and chase after the pack but she could not. The field was racing away, for a brief while led by Budd, startled by the incident. One of the enduring images of the Olympics is of Richard Slaney carrying his sobbing wife in his arms.

Budd would later be exonerated by the IAAF of any blame for Slaney’s fall. I still think Budd cut in too quickly, giving Slaney little opportunity to adjust her stride. But whatever, Puica, pursued by Wendy Sly, took advantage and strode away to gold. Budd, booed by the partisan American crowd, faded to seventh and left the track shocked and in tears.

Zola returned from the Olympics and was now firmly on the athletics merry-go-round. At 18, she showed she was truly as good as she had promised when she won the World Cross-country title in Switzerland in the winter of 1985, beating Ingrid Kristiansen.

Budd now came under the influence of Andy Norman, the Met Police sergeant who ran the commercial side of the sport in Britain. In July that year, he fixed up a re-run with Slaney at Crystal Palace. Slaney got an appearance fee of £85,000 and Budd £98,000 – big money in athletics, even today. “’Cos,” Norman told me, “that’s what they asked for.” Puica, the Olympic champion, was given a derisory few thousand dollars to take part.

Norman was paying for them with money from South African TV and made no bones about it, but it was a scandal at the time since it effectively broke the international sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa that had been in place for a decade. Budd’s track form that summer was less impressive, and Slaney beat her into fourth place in an anti-climax at the Palace. It seemed the Budd bubble might have burst.

It hadn’t; on August 21 in Zurich, Budd ran 4:17.57 for a mile – still the British record – and in Rome 19 days later 8:28.83 for 3,000 metres. She also broke the UK and Commonwealth record for the 1,500 metres, 3:59.96, and the world record for 5,000 metres – 14:48.07, perhaps an indicator where Budd’s true strengths lay.

In 1986 she successfully defended her World Cross-country title (the now IAAF president Lamine Diack, from Senegal, refused to attend the medal ceremony and present Budd’s award) and she set a 3,000m world indoor record of 8:39.79.

But she was barred from that year’s Edinburgh Commonwealth Games – already marred by an African boycott because of prime minister Thatcher’s policies on South Africa – when it was discovered that Budd was spending more time each year living in her native land than in the house she had had bought for her in Guildford. The rest of 1986 was a disappointment and 1987 was a write-off because of injury.

It was in 1987 that Mel Batty, then in charge of the running shoe company Brooks’s British operation, asked if I would take Zola to Cheltenham for her first run of the season. Though Budd had been on the British scene for three years and had long since moved on from being a Daily Mail “property”, her comings and goings were still cloak and dagger. I lived near her house in Guildford and agreed to help, and Mel agreed that he wouldn’t tell her I was working for the Daily Express.

Mel, a former distance runner of great renown and a well-known and well-loved figure in the athletics world, is probably the only sports shoe representative who would sign up a barefoot runner. It wasn’t as daft as that sounded, of course, because in a marketplace dominated by Nike and Adidas, the Brooks logo was emblazoned across Zola Budd’s chest in every photograph that appeared of her.

I told the Express sports desk that I couldn’t really write a story about it, but suggested that they send a heavyweight to Cheltenham because nobody else knew she was there. They sent their distinguished diarist and foreign correspondent Ross Benson.

I remember the return journey well. She curled up in the front seat and said very little. She did offer me a bottle of champagne, but I didn’t take it. She did tell me she was disappointed with the 800m time of 2:04.1. After that, her season petered out.

I went to her house on one other occasion. It was, I believe, at the beginning of another Olympic year, 1988. She had returned from South Africa (her regular trips back home caused understandable fury among those who thought she had no right running for Great Britain) and Athletics Weekly reported she was running under a false name in Northern Ireland that weekend.

By now, with Labuschagne returned to his teaching job, she was being coached and advised by former South African record-holder for the mile, Fanie Van Zyl.

On the Friday evening, I dashed the 15 miles to Guildford and knocked on her door. It was opened by a balding man who looked like an ex-middle distance runner.

“Zola’s not here. She’s in Ireland staying with Les Jones,” he said.

“You’re Fanie Van Zyl, aren’t you?” I asked.

“No, no I’m not,” he replied.

“Yes you are,” I said, “I’ve seen you run.”

“Well, yes I am. But I’m not supposed to be in the country.”

So Zola was in Ireland. I rang Jones, the former British team manager who controlled athletics in Ulster and asked if Zola was with him. “No she’s not here,” he said.

On Sunday, she won the race and I rang Les and in a fit of puffed up importance, demanded why he had lied to me.
“I didn’t lie to you. She didn’t arrive until Saturday night. On Friday, she was still in Guildford.”

Years later, Zola told me she had been upstairs all the time during my visit, listening to Van Zyl at the door tell me porkies.

It was now that the story emerged that she had raced that winter in South Africa – a serious breached of the anti-apartheid sports ban. She denied it, claiming she had merely attended a cross-country event and jogged alongside. But other African countries demanded she be suspended. The IAAF agreed. Budd’s Los Angeles race against Mary Slaney would remain her one and only Olympic appearance in a British vest.

Budd, who as a girl had posters of Mary Slaney on her Bloemfontein bedroom wall, described her 1984 experience many years later as a “nightmare come true”.

“I regret running in Los Angeles – I was too young. If I’d been born a couple of years later, I’d have been just another athlete and not a political pawn. My life would have been so very different.”

In 1989, she married Mike Pieterse and began racing again openly in South Africa. She was the second fastest woman in the world over 3,000m in 1991 and when South Africa was re-admitted to the Olympic movement, she raced in the Barcelona Games of 1992 for her home country. Drained by tick-bite fever (“I was as yellow as a lemon,” Zola remembers), Budd failed to qualify for the 3,000m final, while Elana Meyer supplanted her as the South Africa’s distance running heroine when she won silver in the 10,000m.

Zola Budd did finish fourth in the 1993 World Cross-country championships when she was still in her 20s, but she was never again a force on the track. Some road running in her 30s saw her once more on the world stage, running for her country in the half-marathon world championships, but a dalliance with the idea of returning to Britain to race in the London Marathon never came to much.

Now, at 42, she has a two-year work permit in the United States to run on the Masters Circuit. She’s over there with Mike (the marriage is back on after his dalliance with a semi-finalist in the Miss South Africa competition) and her own three teenaged children.

“When I was a child, running gave me a means of escape and direction to my life,” she said. “But after the clash with Mary, running became a pressure too. I stopped enjoying it. Now the pressure to perform is gone, and I love running the same way I did when I was a schoolgirl.”

As a footnote, I was relating late one night to Nick Davies, my deputy editor on Athletics Today who is now the Communications Director of the IAAF, some Zola Budd stories when he volunteered that his brother Mark had once been engaged to her and lived with her family in Bloemfontein.

It was one last Zola story for the Daily Express. I remember Mark telling how, before each meal, they used to have grace in Afrikaans and how they would talk in their native language throughout. Occasionally, they would translate for him. I guess, for a while, he knew how Zola felt.

This is the latest in an on-going series of articles about covering sport over the past six decades.
To read David Hunn on how the Association was formed, click here
To read John Rodda on what it was like to cover the 1948 London Olympics, click here
To read Hugh McIlvanney writing about the Best footballer he has ever seen, click here

SJA MEMBERS: Make sure your profile details are up to date in the 2009 SJA Yearbook by clicking here