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Zola Budd's stride is long and strong, and she lands on her heels. Wendy Sly's stride is light and swift, and her feet descend as do cats' paws, each with a little pounce before pressing the asphalt.
The contrast between the two British subjects was stark last Saturday because from the first seconds of the Continental Homes 10 Kilometer Road Race in Phoenix, Sly and Budd ran elbow to elbow in the lead. Budd, not yet 19, is 5'4" and 90 pounds, two inches taller and four pounds heavier than she was last summer, when she found herself implanted in a billion or so Olympic remembrances. When she wears shoes, as she does on the road, Budd loses some of the frightened-waif aspect that going barefoot on the track gives her. So her run in Phoenix, only her third international road race ever, provided a clearer view of her talent and temperament than did those anguished Games. As she and Sly, who won the Olympic silver medal in the 3,000, passed the mile in 4:59, leaving the field behind, Budd's expression was one of beetle-browed concentration mixed with an occasional look—down the wide, greening and empty Phoenix thoroughfares—of relief.
"Yes," she would say later, "no matter how hard I was running, it felt good to have a normal race."
Until now, a normal Budd race has been one in which she's been led from the course in tears. It happened in the Los Angeles Olympic 3,000 meters, when Mary Decker Slaney tripped on Budd's heels. Slaney's subsequent tumble onto the infield jammed her thighbone into her hip socket so hard that she couldn't train again until October. Budd ran crying through a gale of booing to her distraught seventh-place finish, then had to weather the abrupt words and scathing tone of Slaney, her childhood idol, who held her responsible for the accident.
For this shambles of an Olympics, Budd had given up her South African citizenship and emigrated to her father's ancestral Britain.
For this mess she had sacrificed her privacy and lived in a maelstrom of protest from those who insisted on seeing her as a representative of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
For this wreck of an Olympics, it turns out, Budd may even have endangered her parents' marriage. After Los Angeles she fled back to Bloemfontein, her hometown and the capital of the Orange Free State, then moved to Stellenbosch near Cape Town. Her mother, Tossie, went with her gladly, but her father, Frank, stayed in England until recently. Although he's now back in South Africa, he and his wife are still living apart. "My father has nothing to do with my athletic career anymore," Budd said in Phoenix. "I'd rather not talk about it."
Thus, last fall she wanted nothing more than to return to the quiet life of her childhood. Once back in South Africa, she announced that she would never race internationally again, that she would be content to compete only in the country of her birth. She would have to be content. Because of the International Amateur Athletic Federation's policies, as soon as she ran her first race on South African soil she would be forever barred from running elsewhere.
"Perhaps no one will ever know what we went through," says her coach, Pieter Labuschagne. "In South Africa she'd have peace. She could run without coping with all the politics." But he also knew that it was the easy way out, that any such peace would be gained by compromising Budd's talent. She needed competition. She would find it only in Europe and America. Labuschagne counseled her to wait, to train, to feel her competitive urge returning.
A British official arrived in South Africa to talk with Budd, surely to say that things couldn't go on being as traumatic as 1984 had been.