FORMER STAR ATHLETE ZOLA BUDD RECOUNTS HER DARKEST MOMENT ON THE TRACK and the strength it took to move on. As South Africans engage in a national conversation about values, Budd explains to Karien Jonckeere the role forgiving played in life.
It’s been almost 22 years since that fateful day when a young barefoot South African, running in the colours of Britain, made the headlines of almost every newspaper in the world.
While the memory of those articles and analyses have faded with time, the feeling of animosity exuded by a crowd of 90 000 fiercely patriotic Americans is not something that can be easily forgotten.
It has taken a concerted effort by Zola Pieterse (then Budd) to forgive, forget and move on with her life.
Speaking from her home in Bloemfontein, the former world record holder who recently turned 40 explained: “I try not to think about the LA Olympics anymore. Obviously there have been quite a few Olympics since then and time erases a lot.
“I have made a conscious effort to forget that one race and the way that I have done that is by filling my life with more important things like my three children,” she added.
Pieterse was held largely responsible for the American favourite for that 3000m title, Mary Decker, tripping and having her Olympic dream shattered. And while the South African has always maintained that she was not guilty of having tripped Decker (and an IAAF jury also found her not guilty), she was snubbed by the devastated American after the race.
“I never had bad feelings towards Mary. I think a lot of the bad feeling came from her side.” Part of the healing process after that incident came when Decker wrote Budd a letter later that year apologising for her attitude.
The letter from Decker, dated 2 December, 1984 (published in Budd’s autobiography) read:
I’ve been wanting to write this letter to you for a long time. The reason I haven’t sent this letter before is because I was sure that you would not receive it personally.
I simply want to apologise to you for hurting your feelings at the Olympics. There are many reasons that people react the way they do at certain times in their lives and I’m sure you understand that was a very difficult time for me.
I’m sorry I turned you away after the race, it was a very hard moment for me emotionally and I reacted in an emotional manner.
I know that we do not know each other personally, but the next time we meet I would like to shake your hand and let everything that has happened be put behind us. Who knows; sometimes the fiercest competitors become friends.
Good luck in Phoenix, I hope you are fit and healthy and I am looking forward to competing with you in the summer.
Yours in sport,
(signed) Mary Decker”
“I was so involved with the political aspects of what was happening at the time but from an athlete’s point of view, that letter was very important. The following year we raced against each other quite often and the bad feeling was gone,” explained Pieterse.
Having been exploited by agents, coaches, the media and even family members during her controversial career, and then having to deal with the murder of her father and then a divorce from her husband earlier this year, Pieterse has had to deal with her fair share of ill-feeling but says she harbours no bitterness.
“Yes, I have forgiven the people who treated me badly during that time and have learnt from it and been able to move on to another life,” she reckoned.
“I think what I learnt from my whole experience is to persevere and it also taught me a lot about not making assumptions and forming strong opinions about people without getting to know them, to accept people for who they are and also about getting second third and fourth chances.
“My life would have been totally different if I could have just represented South Africa. I wouldn’t have had so much of the personal stress or the political stress.
“It is very sad that generations of South Africans missed out. We had brilliant athletes in South Africa at that time who never got a chance, they were robbed of the opportunity to represent their country.”
“I am grateful that unlike so many other athletes, I got to compete internationally but it came at a very high cost.” – Heartlines Features