London Olympics 2012

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Budd & Decker clash in explosive final

ESPN staff
July 5, 2012
Mary Decker fell after clashing with Zola Budd © Getty Images
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Los Angeles, 1984, and golden girl Mary Decker is on a collision course with Zola Budd in the eagerly-anticipated 3000 metres final.

On one side is Decker, the glamorous home favourite tipped for glory. On the other, the controversial figure of bare-footed Budd from Bloemfontein, who had circumnavigated South Africa's Olympic ban by becoming a British citizen only earlier that year.

Whether either would have beaten eventual winner Maricica Puica will never be known, despite the fact the Romanian was an outsider beforehand, but the pair's clash just past the midway part of the race led to furious recriminations and accusations.

Decker, Budd, Britain's Wendy Sly and Puica were some way clear of the rest of the pack and, with a mile to go, the winner looked certain to come from this quartet. It did - but only after the sort of incident more common in horse racing than women's athletics.

"It was the third or fourth lap when the pace drastically slowed," recalled Budd. "Because I was barefoot, I wanted to get to the front. On the next lap, I felt something tug on my vest and the crowd started booing. On the next lap, Mary was lying on the infield."

The teenager, whose style of running without shoes always sparked debate, had altered her position on the track and hampered the American, and they both fell after the New Jersey-born runner's spikes appeared to catch Budd's heel, causing her leg to jut out and trip her rival.

Although Budd was able to continue, she looked a shadow of her usual self and never threatened a place on the podium, finishing down the field in seventh spot and clearly looking affected by the incident.

Mary Decker-Slaney was left in pain on the side of the track after a collision with Zola Budd during the women's 3000m final © PA Photos
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Decker was distraught, a picture of anguish as she lay stricken on the grass on the inside of the circuit. Comforted by her hulking British discus-thrower husband-to-be Richard Slaney, and carried off weeping in his arms, it was a dramatic image for those watching at home.

And the pain felt by the crowd's heroine was not purely for effect or a response to the realisation of seeing her dreams go up in smoke. "It was like I was tied to the ground," she complained after pulling a muscle in her hip, the tears flowing in front of the cameras.

Budd was jeered by the 85,000-strong crowd and was initially disqualified, only to be reinstated an hour later after video evidence was studied. The fact an English newspaper, the Daily Mail, had paid cash to fund her switch of allegiance, on the strength of a British grandfather, only added to the negativity surrounding her involvement - and casting her as the villain of the piece seemed an inevitable conclusion.

Decker was in no doubt as to where to the blame should lay, as this was no accident in her mind. "Zola tried to cut in without being far enough ahead. There was no question she was in the wrong." An apology from the youngster was met with a "don't bother" response in the tunnel.

"It is just sad that it happened between me and Mary," Budd later reflected. "If it had been anyone else, if it had been Wendy Sly, say, but because it was Mary…"

The pain has now subsided for Decker, now Mary Slaney. "It was a living nightmare," she recalled but revealed she had exchanged letters with her rival. She had been one of Budd's self-proclaimed heroes before the fateful race and there would be a form of reconciliation, even though they haven't spoken since 1992.

"We both felt like, 'My God, this has turned into this big battle between us,' and there wasn't one," said Slaney. "It was like, well, that's what happens when you get on the track: you race, some people get spiked, some get tripped, whatever. It was not a personal issue."

Never personal and purely accidental. Some later painted Decker as a bad sport who should have accepted it was simply a moment of great misfortune, rather than blame an already under-fire youngster. Despite what some in the US media felt, the heroine wasn't denied gold by the South African who cheated the system to challenge for the medal.

However, Budd did later admit: "Athletics was the only sport at school in which I could not hurt someone with my aggression. I get aggressive in about 90% of all races." Could the jostling for position, not to mention the painful clip on the Achilles, have provoked that flick of the left leg out of anger - rather than by accident? We'll never know the answer but there's no doubt Decker was left with plenty of hurt in Los Angeles.

What happened next?
Budd and Decker raced each other twice more with the American emerging victorious on both occasions. Budd competed in the 1992 Olympics for South Africa and was seen on British TV show 'Come Dine With Me' recently. The Slaneys are still happily married and have a daughter.

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