When I began running again last year, I had no idea I could ever run internationally again and certainly not in the inspiring atmosphere of a South African Olympic team! I can never forgive the people who hounded me for what they did to me, but now we South Africans might go back as heroes!
—ZOLA PIETERSE, NEE BUDD
As heroes! Zola Budd was track and field's designated whipping girl of the 1980s, a thin, frowning child-champion from South Africa who wound up snared in a web of racism, greed, protest, bad luck, grief, divorce, scandal and, yes, ultimately even murder. Budd seemed always to be under siege, on the lam or in the wrong, stubbornly dodging demands that she clearly declare, once and for all, her opposition to apartheid. Instead of seeming heroic, she seemed very brave but at the same time quite helpless, trapped as she was in the schizophrenic role of playing both the victim and the symbol of white South Africa's racist regime.
Zola Pieterse is something else. In late April, when she uttered the words printed above, she was curled up in a chair with a cat on her lap in her spacious ranch house, in the open South African countryside, a couple of miles beyond the limits of Bloemfontein, the small, drab capital of the Orange Free State. She was glowing, a small, very nearly beautiful woman who looked tranquil, composed, content.
On that day, she repeated the unmistakable antiapartheid declaration that she at last had made public in her autobiography, Zola, published in early 1989: "The Bible says men are born equal before God. I can't reconcile segregation along racial lines with the words of the Bible. As a Christian, I find apartheid intolerable." Had she made that statement in 1984, it would have saved her four years of emotional anguish and allowed her to compete trouble-free, at least politically. But she waited—perversely, it seems—until she had been drummed out of her sport and was stuck in exile before revealing publicly what she says she always had believed privately.
So perhaps heroic is not exactly the word that comes to mind to describe Zola Pieterse in her chair with her cat. But there was a maturity, a dignity, a spiritual stature that certainly seemed capable of blossoming into something like heroism if and when the call should come.
And Zola Pieterse may well get that call. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is leaning toward inviting South Africa to participate in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona after 32 years of exile from Olympic competition. The official IOC decision probably will not come for some time, but things look very promising. As a condition for South Africa's re-admission to the Games, the IOC has stipulated that racially separate South African Olympic organizations and sports federations unite as single entities—and this is happening rapidly. The IOC also has insisted that the rest of Africa's national Olympic committees approve South Africa's return to good standing—and that, too, seems about to happen.
Indeed, IOC insiders say that the acceptance of Zola Pieterse and her teammates in time for them to compete in Barcelona is pretty much guaranteed. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch's desire is that the South Africans celebrate their historic resurrection in his hometown at the same opening ceremonies in which a single team representing Germany will appear for the first time since 1936.
The IOC's final decision on South Africa will depend in large part on whether the government of President F.W. de Klerk can actually accomplish his promise—made in June 1990—to do away with apartheid and rewrite the national constitution. Over the past year the government has erased many of the most onerous racial laws relating to residence, property ownership and restricted movement. Yet much remains to be done, and, at times, the obstacles have looked insurmountable. In mid-May, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) declared that it would boycott all discussions on rewriting the constitution until the government took steps to curb violence among competing black factions. Until that document is revised, blacks—including Mandela himself—cannot vote, and many civil rights leaders both in and outside South Africa feel that no sanctions, sports or otherwise, should be lifted.
Nevertheless, the hopes of South African sportsmen run high. Not since the 1960 Games in Rome has their country fielded an Olympic team—and it was 100% white, of course. Since then, a handful of South Africans, all carrying passports from other countries, have been able to compete in an Olympics. Sydney Maree, who became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and qualified for the L.A. Games, was one of them. A thigh injury knocked him out of those Olympics, but he ran the 5,000 meters in Seoul. Also in 1984 there was Zola Budd, a shy, bony waif of 17 with the legs of an antelope, the face of an angel and the luck of a leper.
She had been a phenom in South Africa since 1982 when, at 15, she won the national women's championships at 3,000 and 1,500 meters. She burst upon the rest of the world one windy January night in '84, in a race at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town in which she shattered Mary Decker's world record in the 5,000 by more than six seconds—15:01.83 to 15:08.26. Of course, that mark was never official because of South Africa's exile status. Instead of remembering that performance as a triumphant high point in her life, Zola has come to look back on it with something like loathing. In her autobiography, which was written with the South African sportswriter Hugh Eley, she wrote, "Back in 1984 the 5,000 meters for women was a relatively new race and Mary Decker's world record was not really that difficult. [It] was...within striking distance of anybody who was in good shape. I have always told people since then that the 15:01 was about the worst thing that could have happened to me as it resulted in four years of trauma with a handful of bright spots in between: 5 January 1984 was probably the worst day of my life."