She was once the fastest thing on the South African veld without stripes or spots. On Jan. 5, 1984, a barefoot 17-year-old named Zola Budd eclipsed Mary Decker's 5,000-meter world record by 6.5 seconds, though her time was not officially recognized because her homeland had been exiled by track's governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). To allow her to compete in international meets, the frail, knock-kneed teenager was spirited into England in March '84 by a London tabloid, granted British citizenship (she was eligible because her paternal grandfather was English) and given a spot on the Olympic team.
Disaster struck in August at the Los Angeles Games during the 3,000-meter final, a much-hyped showdown between the Afrikaner and the American favorite, Decker. On the fifth of 7� laps, Decker clipped Budd's heel, got entangled in her legs and tumbled to the ground. Sprawled on the L.A. Coliseum infield, she tearfully quit. To a chorus of boos from the crowd of 85,000, the weeping Budd soldiered on, fading badly on the final lap and finishing seventh.
Afterward Decker bitterly blamed Budd for the mishap, claiming that the teenager had cut her off. "I was so embarrassed, I wanted the ground to open up and for me to disappear," recalls Budd, who tried to apologize to Decker in the tunnel. "When I told Mary I was sorry, she said, 'Don't bother!' It was a shattering experience. It ended my Olympic dreams."
But not her career. Over the next two years she officially broke the world record in the 5,000 meters (14:48.07 at a 1985 international event in London) and twice won the world cross-country championships. She was unable to outrun the stigma of her birthplace, however, and became the target of anti-apartheid protesters. They sometimes blocked her path during meets and forced her off course. "Everybody saw me as an agent of apartheid," says Budd, who refused to publicly reject South Africa's racial policies.
"Until I got to London in 1984, I never knew Nelson Mandela existed," she continues. "I was brought up ignorant of what was going on. All I knew was the white side expressed in South African newspapers—that if we had no apartheid, our whole economy would collapse. Only much later did I realize I'd been lied to by the state."
Having withdrawn from the '86 Commonwealth Games due to the apartheid controversy, and so hobbled by a chronic hamstring injury that she had to race in shoes for the first time (she did not even own running shoes until age 14), Budd returned, on the verge of what she calls a nervous breakdown, to South Africa. There she only ran into more trouble: She was barred from the Seoul Games in '88 because she had attended a cross-country race in her homeland the year before. (The IAAF considered that a violation of its ban on South Africa.)
Budd's family life was equally turbulent. In '89 she had a bitter falling out with her father, Frank, whom she accused of "taking more than his fair share" of her race winnings. When she refused to let him give her away at her '89 wedding to Mike Pieterse, an owner and manager of three tourist hotels in Bloemfontein, he angrily told the press, "To me Zola is dead. Curse her. May she never be happy."
Five months later Frank Budd was murdered in a sordid shooting. The hitchhiker who pulled the trigger claimed that Frank, a closet homosexual, had made a pass at him. "If my father were born today, he might never have married," Zola says. "Back then South African society didn't accept homosexuals. It took a terrible toll on him."
Budd's final Olympic foray came in 1992, when South Africa was allowed to compete in the Games for the first time in 32 years and she made the team in the 3,000. Drained by tick-bite fever ("I was as yellow as a lemon," she says), Budd was eliminated in a qualifying heat in Barcelona. "Tick-bite fever is like Lyme disease—it never leaves your system," she says. "This year is the first I haven't had a relapse."
At 36 Budd lives quietly on her parents' farm in Bloemfontein with her mother, Tossie; Pieterse, whom she met through mutual friends in 1988; and their three children—daughter Lisa, 6, and twins Michael and Avelle, 4. Though she rarely competes anymore, Budd still runs 10 to 15 miles every day and hopes to soon enter her first marathon.