SI Vault
Craig Neff
May 23, 1988
Beset by controversy, a drained Zola Budd left England and returned to South Africa
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May 23, 1988

A Runner Runs Home

Beset by controversy, a drained Zola Budd left England and returned to South Africa

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To hear Zola Budd speak during her first days in England in the spring of 1984, one had to lean forward and listen intently. "I am just a runner," she would say, eyes down, voice barely audible. "I am not a politician." The words carried a strong accent of Afrikaans, Budd's first language and the traditional tongue of Afrikaners, white, Dutch-descended South Africans. Just as Great Britain was Budd's second country, so was English her second language. She was taught English in the racially segregated schools of Bloemfontein, South Africa, but almost always spoke Afrikaans at home, back when she was happy and naive and running barefoot.

Those days seemed a distant memory on Monday night of last week, when Budd boarded a Johannesburg-bound plane in London, emotionally drained and on the verge of a breakdown at the age of 21. After four years as a British subject, she had seen her life and her career disintegrate. In recent weeks, beset by antiapartheid groups and an International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) threat to ban her from competition for a year for appearing last June at a cross-country meet in the South African town of Brakpan, she had grown deeply depressed and had stopped running completely. Curiously, Budd had just begun to dream in English—but now she could no longer sleep.

Budd's move to Britain had seemed ill-fated from the start. Then 17, she had been condemned, along with other South African athletes, to compete only in her native land, the result of the worldwide sporting ban against South Africa in protest of the apartheid policies of its white racist government. Budd beat the world-record time for the 5,000 meters and ran the fastest ever 3,000 and 1,500 by a junior (under 19 years old). Because of the ban none of those marks was officially recognized. But all that happened before March 1984 when she was flown to Amsterdam by commercial jet under an assumed name (Miss Hamilton), then spirited into England in a private plane chartered by the Daily Mail, a London tabloid that had reportedly paid her more than $100,000 for exclusive rights to her story.

The whole deal was unseemly, an illustration of the sleazy checkbook journalism practiced by Britain's doggedly competitive tabloids. In the weeks following her arrival in Britain, Budd was kept in a remote hideaway on the edge of the New Forest to prevent rival photographers and reporters from seeing her, and there were even high-speed car chases as the Daily Mail sought to thwart rival media. Sensationalized Budd stories were printed by other tabloids to feed the public's hunger for information about the wispy teenage track star.

Supposedly because Budd was a minor whose paternal grandfather had been born in London—but more likely because the Daily Mail pulled strings and because she seemed capable of winning medals for Great Britain in the '84 Los Angeles Olympics—she was declared a British subject just 10 days after applying for citizenship. Such haste offended applicants who had been waiting for years.

At the L.A. Games, Budd struggled home seventh in the 3,000 after Mary Decker tripped over Budd's heel, an incident for which Budd was initially, and unfairly, blamed. In 1985 and '86 Budd won world cross-country titles for Britain and set an indoor world record in the 3,000 meters and an outdoor world record in the 5,000. But Budd, who had grown up the youngest of five children on the family farm near Bloemfontein, was overwhelmed by the events of her new life. Tellingly, of the money paid by the Daily Mail, only a small portion was said to have gone to Budd. Some of it went, at Budd's insistence, to her coach and mentor at the time, Pieter Labuschagne, a South African, and the bulk of it, according to newspaper reports, went to Frank Budd, Zola's father.

Shortly after the Olympics, Budd's parents, Frank and Tossie, separated. They are now divorced, and Frank has cited disagreements over Zola's move to England and over her career plans as factors in the breakup. Perhaps to prove that her loyalty was to Britain, not South Africa, Budd dropped Labuschagne, with whom she had a close relationship, in favor of a British coach. In 1986 she suffered thigh and hamstring injuries. Meanwhile, she found life in England so lonely that she needed to go back to South Africa regularly, no matter what the eligibility risks.

Under an International Olympic Committee ban, South Africans have not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Since 1976, IAAF rules have also banned them from international track and field competition; runners from member nations are prohibited from taking part in events in which South Africans participate. While there is no written rule against a runner visiting South Africa, the IAAF reserves the right to suspend an athlete who violates the spirit of the international ban by maintaining close ties to South Africa.

In recent weeks Budd's health became a matter of serious concern. She was said to be suffering from "nervous exhaustion" and doctors advised Tossie Budd, who went to England last month to care for her daughter, to keep her away from prescription medicine as a precaution against suicide attempts.

"Zola says she can't take the situation anymore," Budd's physician, Dr. Ken Kingsbury, told the London newspaper The Independent the day after she left for South Africa. "When I talked to her she was seldom far from tears. She is in an acutely distressed condition."

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