Zola Budd, the Barefoot Olympian Runner

In celebration of Women’s History Month, UNDO is focused on highlighting female trailblazers in sports. Today’s bae of the day is South Africa’s Zola Budd, a two time gold winner of the World Cross Country Championship (1985,1986). Did I mention she trained and ran professionally barefoot?

At the young age of 17, Budd broke the women’s 5000 m world record with a time of 15:01.83. Unfortunately this competition took place in South Africa, which was excluded from the international athletics competition because of the apartheid policy and the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) refused to legitimate Budd’s time as an official world record. But Budd persisted and officially claimed the world record two years later, representing Great Britain with a time of 14:48:07. To add to her accolades Budd’s 4:17:57 mile time set in 1985 still stands as the British record.

In the 1984 Olympics, held in Los Angeles, California, the media billed the 3000 m race as a duel between Budd and American world champion Mary Decker, a third contestant, Romanian Maricica Puică, had supposedly set the fastest time earlier that year. Decker set the pace but was followed closely by Puică and Budd. Running as a group was an unusual situation for Budd and Decker, both of whom were used to running in front and well ahead of other competitors this caused an infamous incident between the two heavy weight runners. At around 1700 m Decker and Budd came into contact which resulted in Budd losing her balance. Fortunately both women were able to maintain their composure and position. With 4:58 on the clock the two leaders collided again this time with Budd’s left foot coming into contact with Decker’s left thigh. This incident resulted in Budd losing her balance and sending her into Decker’s stride. Decker’s spiked track shoes came down on Budd’s barefoot, drawing blood. Budd maintained equilibrium and kept stride. Miracuously Budd was able to  to keep her pace and balance. Unfortunately Decker was on the opposite end of the crash and fell forward grabbing the paper number on the back of Budd’s track suit. Decker was unable to finish the race. The home country booed the South African native as she continued to fight through the pain and placed seventh overall. After the race Budd approached Decker to apologize but was met with a cold shoulder. Later in her autobiography, Budd admitted to slowing down on purpose because she couldn’t face collecting a medal in front of the hostile partisan crowd. Budd was still only a teenager at the time of this event.

That’s it for the week, we’ll see you again on Monday with another badass woman to celebrate Women’s History Month.

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