The girl, running barefoot as usual, was already far ahead in her 5,000-meter race on the pink Tartan of Stellenbosch University's Coetzenburg Stadium, near Cape Town, South Africa. Then the January night wind came down from the Stellenbosch Mountains, flapping marker flags and buffeting hoardings. Distance runners hate the wind. It never helps when it's behind as much as it hinders and infuriates when it's ahead. But the girl, Zola Budd, simply set her frown of concentration more firmly and kept on. She is 17, but so slender at 5'2" and 84 pounds, so floppy in the motion of her arms, that she seemed years younger. Yet somehow she wasn't slowing.
Lap after lap she ran, each in a metronomic 72 seconds. By the last mile it had come to seem that her very thinness, which at first suggested frailty, was what was letting her split the wind; her sharp elbows were carving a passage. She barely slowed, and when she was done, her time was 15:01.83, nearly seven seconds faster than Mary Decker's world record, run in 1982.
The significance of Zola Budd's race on Jan. 5, 1984, comes into the mind in layer after layer. First, and most forcefully, it means that here is a prodigy even among prodigies. She is six years younger than was Decker when she set the record. Last summer, at 24, Decker won the World Championship 1,500 meters in 4:00.9 (her American record is 3:57.12). Two weeks ago in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Budd ran 4:01.81, the fastest ever by a junior (19 and under) by 4.21. Decker was 21 before she ran that fast.
Second, because South Africans have been ostracized since 1976 by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the ruling body for track and field, because of their country's apartheid policy of racial separation and white minority rule, Zola Budd's record will not be officially recognized. This, plus the fact that South Africa has been banned from the Olympics since 1960, is what forced Zola Budd and her family to fly to England two weeks ago, the home of her paternal grandfather, there to seek citizenship and the eventual right to take part, for Britain, in the Los Angeles Olympics.
The abrupt move was surprising to many, because Budd's father, Frank, had said repeatedly that no decision in regard to a change in citizenship would be taken until after the Olympics, and because Zola Budd doesn't yet choose to converse a great deal in English. She is an Afrikaner, from Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. Her father was born there, the son of an immigrant British printer, but Frank Budd was raised, unavoidably, in an Afrikaans environment, and he brought up his children in one as well. That is important to an understanding of the life that shaped Zola Budd on the way to her record, and to the nature of her choice following it.
The Orange Free State was settled mainly by emigrant Boers, the stubborn, religious farmers of Dutch ancestry who trekked north in the 1830s (hence the proud Afrikaans word Voortrekker) to escape the unpopular British administration of the Cape Province. The Orange Free State became an independent Afrikaans republic in 1854, and joined with rebellious Boers from the Transvaal and elsewhere to fight two bitter wars against the British. Known to the rest of the world as the Boer War, they are called to this day "The Wars of Independence" by many Afrikaners.
In 1910, the Orange Free State joined the Union of South Africa, formed as a self-governing part of the British Empire. In 1961, under strong censure from the British Commonwealth because of its racial policies, South Africa broke away and declared itself an independent republic. The descendants of the Voortrekkers rejoiced. They felt their beliefs had been preserved.
Those beliefs are maintained in the Dutch Reform Church, the mother church of the Afrikaners, who are in the majority in the white administration and the public service. The Afrikaners' church and people traditionally, politically and emotionally endorse apartheid. For three centuries the church has cited Old Testament references to support the concept of the separation of the races.
The Budd family members are all communicants in the Dutch Reform Church. The children went to segregated Afrikaans schools. The apartheid laws that control residential and social mixing limited Zola Budd's contact with black Africans to the family's domestic servants and laborers on the Budd farm.
But Frank Budd, the son of an Englishman, is not the classic, intransigent Boer. When, 35 years ago, he courted Hendrina Wilhelmina de Swardt, known as Tossie, a Bloemfontein Afrikaner farmer's daughter, it created no small scandal. But they married, his printing company prospered, and they had six children, two of whom have died.