A once-iconic moment of sports history, now largely forgotten, comes in for a new look.
Mary Decker (b. 1958) won just about every major distance competition in her day. As sports historian Keiderling (The Perfect Game: Villanova vs. Georgetown for the National Championship, 2012, etc.) reminds us, “she remains the only athlete to have held every U.S. record for distances from 800 meters to 10,000 meters,” some of them still unbroken. Yet Olympic gold eluded her ever since a fateful moment with South African runner Zola Budd, now Zola Budd Pieterse, with whom she literally tangled during the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. As the author reconstructs events moment by moment, “Decker’s foot strikes Budd’s leg from behind,” and then four seconds later again “comes down just above Budd’s Achilles tendon” with her spiked running shoe. Budd kept running, Decker fell, and a controversy erupted, “a boiling pot of outrage, sympathy, and finger-pointing.” Did Budd willfully interfere? Was Decker playing fair? Budd bore the brunt, even receiving death threats, already suspect because of her fame as an athlete in a South Africa still governed by an apartheid regime. Keiderling examines the case exhaustively, looking at all the interested parties—many of whom, of course, wanted nothing more than to see a rematch between two athletes now paired as enemies in the popular imagination. The “forever linked in the collective mind” trope is repeated rather too often, and the account sometimes gets tangled in tortuous writing (“to men one of the great mysteries of life is women’s intuition”). However, Keiderling provides insight into how the sports machine works and particularly into how athletes remember long-ago events on the field—for they remain fresh to both Decker and Budd, each of whom went on to endure other travails off the track.
A sprint down Memory Lane for fans of sports history, particularly sports controversies.