Every four years, when the respective Summer and Winter Olympics roll around, the world is treated to a spectacle that—while forever at risk of devolving into a glitzy media circus and an occasion for jingoistic chest-thumping—contains at its heart an impulse quite ancient: the thrill of watching godlike competitors clash for the chance at a moment of glory. Millennia ago, we thronged to our Panhellenic amphitheaters and our Roman Colosseums to cheer for the Discobolii and the gladiatorial jousters, during an age when victors basked in their crowns of laurel and olive branches while losing brought shame or (if the Palatine crowds were feeling particularly vicious) execution. Fast-forward some 2,000 years and we’re no less entranced by the pageantry of victory and defeat that our Olympians enact. And for every exultant win by a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, for every surprise champion like a David Boudia or Missy Franklin, for every hard-won gold by a Gabby Douglas or Kerri Walsh, there is the athlete whose epic implosion is as swift as it is astonishing. Who can forget McKayla Maroney’s instantly viral poker face after the world’s best vaulter botched her most important landing in London? Who can forget Jordyn Wieber’s despair as she failed to make it to the 2012 gymnastics all-around finals, or Russia’s Aliya Mustafina weeping over her bronze while an exuberant Douglas took home the prize? Who can forget the faces of the U.S. men’s 4x100 swim relay as the French team snatched away the win last summer by four-10ths of a second?
And who can forget the absolute, primal agony of Mary Decker in the 1984 Games? Decker’s defeat will certainly go down in the history books as one of the most shocking upsets in a modern Olympics, a moment that crushed her best hope at a gold medal and that may forever overshadow her long and illustrious career. The story of her fall, and the fate of a young, barefoot South African runner named Zola Budd who strode alongside Decker in that luckless race, is a tale of fitful hopes, fragile egos, and a tragic accident that will haunt two athletes for the rest of their days. It’s a story told grippingly by ESPN’s documentary The Runner, debuting Tuesday night, and one that surely lives on in the minds of every spectator who tuned in to watch the women’s 3,000-meter finals one sunny Los Angeles afternoon.
This wasn’t supposed to be the way Mary Decker was remembered by the world. From a precociously early age, she was one of America’s best runners, a child track-and-field prodigy whose lithe frame and perfect form had top coaches and the folks at Nike salivating to sign her up and hitch a ride as she soared to future fame and glory. At age 12, a lanky preteen with a shy demeanor and Chrissy Snow pigtails, she already knew she wanted to be an Olympian. At 13, she ran her first under-five-minute mile. Off the track, she was “little Mary Decker,” 86 pounds of braces and wiry tendons. On the track, she was unstoppable. Watching her run was “like watching a symphony in motion,” says Brooks Johnson, the coaching legend whose protégées include the likes of Evelyn Ashford and Justin Gatlin. “Mechanically, she was off the charts.” Decker missed qualifying for the ’72 Olympics because she would turn 14 just after the U.S. trials, but by ’73, she was a star of the national team. “I really didn’t have any tactics,” Decker says. “I just liked to get to the finish line first.” Her trademark move: swooping past the pack in the final stretch to leave her competitors in the dust. She was just a kid, but she rarely lost a race.
When she did lose, though, things got ugly. In the summer of ’73, the Americans traveled to Minsk for a showdown with the Soviet Union. All year, Decker had been blowing past record after record, winning race after race. But now, on the international stage, she faced down opponents unafraid to pull a few nasty tricks on the track. In a relay, a Soviet runner brusquely cut Decker off, nearly body-slamming her on the back stretch. It was an illegal move, and would have disqualified the girl, leaving an easy victory open for the Americans. But Decker, in a spontaneous fit of petulance, tossed her baton at the back of her enemy’s head. It was terribly unsportsmanlike conduct, and an inexcusable show of temper. The U.S. team was booted from the running.
Decker also displayed a deep, insatiable desire for approval. “After every race, she’d come over and hug me and say, ‘How did I do? How did I do? How did I do?” says Johnson, who had taken Decker under his coaching wing. “She was extremely vulnerable—extremely vulnerable.” And yet, for the most part, the answer to her plaintive question was that she had run the best race ever. At age 15, she held four world records in the indoor mile, the 1,000 meters, the 880 yards, and the 800 meters. She was America’s sweetheart, and her sights were set on Montreal and the 1976 Games.
But just as Decker appeared blessed with an extraordinary athletic gift, she also seemed blighted by a strange Olympics curse. As Montreal drew near, Decker found herself wracked with shin splints, unable to run in the trials. The gold medal would have to wait. Her career entered a fraught period, yo-yoing between world record–setting times and terrible injuries. She suffered from stress fractures, wrecked shins, aching Achilles', torn muscles, plantar fasciitis, a skull fracture from an auto accident, and surgeries that left her legs marked with deep, shiny cicatrices. “From her knees up, she was the best thoroughbred that the American running scene has seen,” says Dick Brown, another one of Decker’s coaches at the time. “From her knees down, she was scar tissue.”
Despite her reign as the best middle-distance runner in America, it was becoming clear to everyone that Decker had a case of quadrennial bad luck.
Four years passed. The 1980 Olympics approached. Decker pumped herself up to withstand the onslaught of U.S.S.R. and East German runners, who liked to “gang up” on her in a brutish pack. Still, she held three world and eight American records, and there were plenty of races to be run for a Moscow gold. “I think people in this country would love to see me win a gold medal,” Decker told the media. And then: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter's pledge to boycott the Games, and another dream smashed. “I don’t know of one athlete who thought that the boycott was going to do any good politically, anyway,” Decker groused. Cold War maneuverings aside, her frustration was certainly justified—after all, despite her reign as the best middle-distance runner in America, it was becoming clear to everyone that Decker had a case of quadrennial bad luck.
Still, her chance at redemption glimmered ahead, with the promise of Los Angeles in ’84 and the increasing likelihood of a Soviet-bloc boycott, which would conveniently remove her fiercest rivals. Indeed, by 1983, when she crushed the Russians and the East Germans at the Helsinki worlds in both the 3,000 and the 1,500 meters, she had won every type of honor imaginable for an elite middle-distance runner—except an Olympic medal. And so, even as America’s hometown games featured a panoply of heroes to root for, from the pixie-size Mary Lou Retton to the sprinting giant Carl Lewis, Decker’s story captured the public's imagination. Here was the undisputed queen of the track, ready at last to take home her rightful due. Sports Illustrated splashed her across its cover. Kodak and Nike featured her beaming face in commercials and on giant billboards. Decker appeared confident, perhaps even cocky, at press conferences. Her closest competition would be the Romanian Maricica Puica, who had placed, at best, second in the ’82 European championships in Athens. What could possibly ruin her surefire win?
It’s late in the spring of 1984. The Olympics are mere months away. On the backwater tracks of South Africa, which has fallen off the sports radar due to the official boycott over apartheid, a little wisp of a thing named Zola Budd—who runs without sneakers, no less—emerges out of nowhere to break Decker’s world record in the 5,000 meters. She’s just 17, a farm kid from the veldt who darts around the track like a frightened impala. The press calls her the “shoeless waif.” Still, she’s no real threat, since South Africans can’t compete internationally. Then some editors at a Fleet Street tabloid get the wise idea to persuade Budd to run for Britain, since her gramps was a national. The Daily Mail ferrets the teen and her family into the country and sets her up as the U.K.’s secret weapon for L.A. They fast-track a passport and slap up sappy headlines like “Zola: I’ll Run My Heart Out for Britain!” Meanwhile, Budd—for whom running is an escape valve of grief over the recent death of a sister—finds herself swamped at press conferences by questions about Soweto and apartheid. She’s a naïve, rural girl, hiding behind big glasses and stuttering to the press. The Daily Mail had never said anything about a controversy. And yet here she is, in her first race in the U.K., dodging mobs who chant “racist” and demand the release of ANC leaders. (“I asked my coach, ‘Who is Nelson Mandela?’” Budd recalls. “He was imprisoned in 1962. I was born in 1966. We were just so protected from any international news about what was happening in our own country.”) Nonetheless, Budd turns in a slick time at the British trials and she’s suddenly Los Angeles-bound.
Back across the Atlantic, Decker starts to get wind of this unlikely ingénue. The media begin to hound her, asking how she’s going to deal with an unknown like Budd. Decker tries to shrug it off, but clearly she’s rattled. During one press conference, a tear streams down her cheek as she answers breezily: “You just go about your business and train … and not worry about the others.” At another event, she snaps, “To be quite honest, I’m getting tired of reading my name in the same paragraph as Zola Budd’s.” Decker wants to talk about she’s feeling “more secure tactically” since the Russians aren’t running and how “it’s a miracle I’m here … it’s something that I’ve looked forward to for a long time and fought for”; she doesn’t want to talk about the South African star. She huffs and dodges. During one epically testy Q&A, she gets so piqued when Budd’s name comes up that she pretends not to understand the question and then, in a bizarre diversionary tactic, announces that her boyfriend has just proposed to her earlier that day. (He hadn’t.)
Plus, Decker had another problem on her hands, one much closer to home. During the U.S. qualifying trials, Decker breezed to the win in the 3,000, but during the last stretch of the 1,500, teammate Ruth Wysocki pulled alongside her and closed in on her heels. Decker glanced at Wysocki as they pounded down the final 100 meters, shocked, uncomprehending. Ruth surged across the finish line first, and even though Decker placed second to still qualify, she clearly decided that she had glimpsed an ominous bit of foreshadowing. Shaken, Decker withdraws from the 1,500 to concentrate all her energy and physical aplomb on the 3,000 meters. It happens to be the race Budd is running as well. It’s Decker’s best chance to fulfill her lifelong quest for gold, and she’s on her own turf. The odds are stacked nicely in her favor—and yet, “I think coming into the Games, her confidence was low and her insecurities were high,” says Brooks Johnson. Meanwhile, Budd, too, is in a precarious mental state. Two weeks before the Games, her parents announce they’re getting a divorce. She arrives in Los Angeles “emotionally and physically exhausted … it was just a horrible time in my life,” Budd says now. “I just wanted to get it over with.”
The morning of August 10 dawns. It's the day of the 3,000-meter final. Budd and Decker arrive at the stadium for their much-hyped showdown. They both appear tense. The crowd cheers wildly, waving American flags. The women line up. The gun sounds. The runners shoot out at a fast pace, snarled in a tight pack. Decker takes the lead, trying to pull away, but Budd runs up right on her elbow. They stay like this for a few laps, but then Decker appears to change up her strategy, and hangs back slightly to let Budd set the pace—perhaps in the hopes of letting the girl wear herself out. Budd takes off; Decker and two other runners follow. The women have only three laps to go, when Decker’s spiked running cleat nips at Budd’s barefoot heel—once, twice. Budd stumbles. Decker tumbles.
In the moments after her fall, Decker wallows on the infield, grimacing and wailing—perhaps in pain, perhaps in existential anguish. The crowd boos while the rest of the women complete their race. Budd, shaken by the accident, ends up finishing seventh, while the Romanian Puica takes gold. But all anyone can talk about is Decker’s fall, and “what will forever be known as the Decker-Budd confrontation,” as one sportscaster puts it. ("People will forget who won the race," he correctly predicts.)
Out on the track, the situation spirals from bad to worse for Decker. She’s sobbing, hysterically demanding that the U.S. coaches “better make a protest.” The woman who just moments ago seemed so powerful and unstoppable has become a fragile child, wounded and feeble. Her fiancé carries her, in his arms, away from the scene of the carnage. As they leave the stadium, an ashen Budd approaches to apologize. “Don’t bother,” Decker snarls. The press catches wind of her comment, and a PR storm ensues. Decker’s coaches urge her to return and give a more gracious statement to the media. “Zola came to you and and she tried to express her sorrow and you said, ‘Leave me alone,’” one reporter begins. “I didn’t say ‘Leave me alone,’” Decker shoots back imperiously. “I said, ‘Don’t bother.’ When I think about it now, I should have pushed her. But if I had pushed her, tomorrow the headlines would have read, ‘Decker Shoves Zola.’”
Behind the scenes, the Americans have filed a protest, but the British coaches point out that since Budd was in front, she had the right of way. Decker, still at the press conference, declares, “I don’t think there’s any question she was in the wrong.” She then bursts into tears and must be carried away once again by her boyfriend. “Maybe if she had said a few different words, it would have been better,” one of her coaches notes now. “The crying. The blame game. And then, ‘Oh, I can’t even get up from my chair so my [fiancé] has to pick me up,” a former L.A. Times journalist recalls. “What, there’s no crutches at the Olympics?” In a lightening-quick reversal, Decker has gone from being a figure of heartwrenching sympathy and pathos to a notoriously sore loser and a rather unlikable diva. What's worse, the Olympic committee watches the tapes and rules in favor of Budd, so Decker is not only going home without a medal, she's now going home as the woman who ruined her own race.
The Games wind down. Budd hurries back to South Africa after receiving death threats stateside. Decker tries to do a full-court press with some softball interviews (In one, she appears in a feminine pink top with soft curls, batting her doe eyes and declaring, “I don’t think I lost the race because I wasn’t good enough. I think it was a situation that I couldn’t control”). But despite her efforts, she’s been stuck with the sobriquet, “America’s crybaby” and “worst loser of the year.” Thirty years later, she’s still unapologetic about her response that day. “If you’re strong and confident, they call you bitchy,” she says to the documentary's filmmakers, sidestepping her snub of Budd. “If you fell over and your whole dreams since you were 12 go down the toilet, you’re a crybaby.”
While Decker would go on to flourish a year later in the World Championships, beating Budd in a rematch in London, shattering more American and world records, and winning every race she ran in ’85, she never escaped the shadow of her Olympic fall—nor did she ever come back to win a medal of any hue, even though she competed again in Seoul and Atlanta. Budd, too, ran a few more international races, showing up in the the qualifying rounds in Barcelona, but she never again had a chance at an Olympic final heat. "The day of the final, it's a day that changed everybody's life," Budd says. "My life and Mary's life."
It's a fascinating testament to the collective emotional cachet of a gold medal that a runner could spend her entire career on top of her sport and yet be remembered not for everything she accomplished—every race she dominated, every record she surpassed—but for the instant in time when her failure to become an Olympic winner crystallized in all its naked agony. Perhaps it's because records can always be—and usually are—broken with each new generation, but a gold is in the history books forever. Or maybe it's just that we remember the bad losers, the ungracious athletes whose tears and howls both repel us and, at the same time, tell us something deep and truthful about how much it hurts to fail. On the other hand, it's a safe bet that, as that sportscaster noted three decades ago, there are legions of gold medalists whose names and triumphs are quite easily forgotten—their crowning moment a flash in the pan, and then never to be heard from again. Decker may not have won her kleos in the fashion she would have preferred, but her name lives on—and that, too, is an ancient desire indeed.