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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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Budd had more than her shattered running career to contend with. The British press has reported that her mother has a serious blood disorder and her father, from whom she has been estranged in the last couple of years, is also ill. Budd, a loner whose closest friends have always been her many pets, is said to have grown quite upset upon hearing of the death in South Africa two weeks ago of her African gray parrot, At, whom she'd had for 19 years. Budd would sometimes call Bloemfontein from England to converse with the bird.

But the antiapartheid pressures took the greatest toll. They led Budd to announce, upon arriving in South Africa last week, that she will not compete in international track for "at least a year" and perhaps never again. "I have lost my love for athletics [track and field]," she said. "I don't want anything to do with athletics or any other sport."

"I have seen her crumble as a human being," said her British coach, John Bryant, a former Daily Mail editor. Bryant claimed that Budd had been offered up as "a human sacrifice" in the worldwide campaign against apartheid. Over the years, antiapartheid protesters had shoved Budd into bushes and blocked her path during races, but the harshest blows had come this winter. In March, Budd withdrew under pressure from the world cross-country championships in New Zealand to head off a boycott by black African nations incensed by reports of her appearance at the meet in Brakpan.

Budd admits that she took a high-visibility training run during the Brakpan meet but points out that she didn't compete in the event itself. But the IAAF ruled in April that her presence there violated the spirit of its ban. The IAAF urged the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) to suspend Budd for 12 months or risk having the entire British track and field team barred from international competition for a year, including this fall's Seoul Olympics. The IAAF toned down its threat against the team, but Budd may still be banned for a year after the BAAB finishes up its inquiry this week.

"I have been made to feel like a criminal," said Budd last week. "I have been continuously hounded and can't take it anymore. I still don't know what I'm supposed to have done—who am I supposed to have hurt?"

The cause of nonwhite South Africans, answer antiapartheid leaders. Critics of Budd say that by showing up at Brakpan and by spending more than half her time in South Africa over the last four years while competing for Britain, Budd has made a mockery of the antiapartheid sports ban. "She's a special case because she has so clearly flaunted the policies [against maintaining ties with South Africa]," says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and national chairman of ACCESS, an antiapartheid coalition of 35 political and religious groups. "She has never made strong statements against apartheid, even though that really isn't very hard to do these days."

To some intransigent Afrikaners, Budd symbolizes South Africa's determination to overcome global ostracism. But that is not to say that Budd herself supports apartheid; she has never made any public statements one way or the other. In fact, in 1984 Budd became the only white ever to be voted the Sports Star of the Year by the readers of Bona, a South African magazine with a predominantly black readership. And many blacks in South Africa are said to affectionately call the small vans in which they travel to work Zola Budds or simply Zolas.

"She is very popular, generally, among blacks and whites," says Mark Plaatjes, a black South African marathoner who was recently granted political asylum in the U.S. and is seeking American citizenship. "Part of it is her name, Zola. You know, Zola is a Zulu name, which I think is very ironic for an Afrikaner girl. I think a lot of the blacks in South Africa who are too poor to have a television or anything think Zola is a black girl."

In spite of her cautious silence on political matters, Budd seems to be open-minded on the subject of race. "When I walk down the streets in South Africa, it is always the black people greeting me," she told Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times last month in a rare one-on-one interview. "I can feel their honesty. I never mind, if I am running, if people shout at me, if [they are] black people. I really believe them more. Blacks in South Africa are much more honest."

Budd's return to Bloemfontein, however, reinforces the view of antiapartheid leaders that South Africa has remained her home all along. "She has committed athletic suicide," said Sam Ramsamy, chairman of the London-based South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, obviously confident that Budd is unlikely to compete again internationally. Tossie Budd says her daughter would like to go back to England, but don't count on its happening soon. By last Wednesday, movers had taken all the belongings from her house in Guildford, Surrey. In front of the house there was a FOR SALE sign.

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