Instead, Decker shortened her stride for a couple of steps. There was contact. Decker's right thigh grazed Budd's left foot. Budd took five more strides, slightly off balance. Trying to regain control, she swayed in slightly to the left. Decker's right foot struck Budd's left calf, low, just above the Achilles tendon. Budd's left leg shot out, and she was near falling.
But Decker was falling, tripped by that leg all askew. "To keep from pushing her, I fell," she would say. She reached out after Budd, inadvertently tearing the number from her back and went headlong across the rail onto the infield.
Decker's competitiveness is without limit. "My first thought was, 'I have to get up,' " she said. But when she tried, "It felt like I was tied to the ground." She had a pulled gluteus, the hip stabilizer muscle. Only then, understanding that she couldn't go on, with the field past and the medical attendants and her fianc�, Richard Slaney, running across the track to her, did the anguish come. Hers was the horrible realization that once again, in the race she'd been denied by injury and boycott for eight years, she was being denied any chance of a conclusion of her own making.
She who had been hurt so often, for whom the sensation of raw exhaustion is a joy compared with the misery of not being able to run, was hurt again, three laps from the end of overcoming all of that hurt. And as that crashed in on her, she lay writhing and screaming on the infield, her face hideously expressive of the wild rage of her reaction.
Budd, who had kept her feet, maintained the lead and increased the pace. Boos rained on her. She had tears coursing down her face, this woman-child perfectionist who already had gone through so much trauma simply to be here. She had left friends and farm and studies in South Africa to claim the citizenship that was hers because her father is of British descent. And in so doing, she had become the center of a storm of debate over whether these two things could be reconciled: prohibiting South Africa any place in international sport until apartheid is no more, and letting a slender, shy girl test the extent of her talent.
Decker and Budd were seared into Olympic history in the minutes that followed, the woman in agony on the ground and the frightened little deer running on, desperately trying to squeeze away the thought that it was all ruined, this race that she had overturned her pleasantly sheltered life for, trying just to run, to go her hardest, because that was what always worked, that was what she knew, that was what she was made to do.
But she had so little left. With a lap to go, Sly and Puic? were running away from her. Puic? then bolted out alone over the last 250 meters, winning in 8:35.96. Sly was second in 8:39.47, and Williams third in 8:42.14. Budd faded badly, crossing the line seventh in 8:48.80.
Slaney walked the limping, sobbing Decker across the track and then lifted her into his arms as they entered the tunnel. Budd found her way there a few moments later, desperately wanting to somehow make clear that she had intended none of this horror. She admired Decker enormously. Above her bed, back in the Afrikaans town of Bloemfontein, she had kept a picture of her. In San Diego, before the Olympics, she had spoken of Decker, saying, "It would be wonderful to be so pretty."
Decker saw Budd coming. "Don't bother," she snarled, waving her off. Budd, mortified, was assisted by Britain's Mary Peters, the 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion, to the medical area, to have her bleeding ankle bandaged. On the way back to the UCLA Olympic Village, British team manager Nick Whitehead sought to cheer her. "I just said that it was her first Olympics and she ought to be proud," he said. "All she said was, 'How's Mary?' "
By then, of course, a great cacophony had arisen over whose fault this wreck of a race was. An umpire seated along the track had signaled a foul, and referee Andy Bakjian disqualified Budd for obstructing Decker. The British team manager protested the disqualification, so the matter went to the jury of appeals.