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That is not the only time in Zola that she refers to her running as inextricably tied to pain and loss. A chapter entitled "Running from Death" deals in wrenching prose with the sudden death in 1980 of a beloved sister, Jenny, who was 25 to Zola's 14: "Her death made everything in my life, even eating and drinking, seem of secondary importance.... Running was the easiest way to escape from the harsh reality of losing my sister because when I ran I didn't have to think about life or death.... There is no doubt that the loss of Jenny had a major effect on my running career. By escaping from her death I ran into world class and although my running was to bring me much heartache and unpleasantness, I'm sure Jenny was proud of me each time I did well."
Zola Pieterse views much of her previous life through a glass very darkly—and with excellent reason. Of the day in 1984 on which she was granted the British passport that opened the way for her to run in a full schedule of international races—including the Los Angeles Olympics—she wrote, "it should have been the greatest moment of my life.... Instead, I saw the passport that thrust me into the world spotlight as a symbol of my abuse."
Even the most casual readers of English tabloids and American sports pages will remember 17-year-old Zola Budd's star-crossed saga as an international competitor. It began in March of that year, when she left South Africa for England accompanied by her father, Frank, a printer by trade, and her Afrikaner mother, Tossie, a caterer. Five weeks later Budd's coach, Pieter Labuschagne, joined them. The London Daily Mail had paid 100,000 pounds for the exclusive rights to her story, had bought the plane tickets to bring the Budds to England and, on very short notice, had arranged for Zola and Frank Budd to get the British passports that were legally theirs because Frank's father had been born an Englishman. She recalls all this as being nothing more than child exploitation of a Dickensian sort. "Daddy recognized my commercial value," she wrote, "while Pieter was already savouring the prestige he would get as the coach of a world class athlete.... Together with the Daily Mail which arranged the cloak-and-dagger operation to get me to England in what was, for it, a massive and highly successful publicity stunt, they turned me into some kind of circus animal.... I was plucked away from everything I loved and put in an environment where I, as a person, no longer counted."
Predictably, once Zola Budd and her entourage left South Africa, they became prime targets for antiapartheid demonstrators, as well as for all sorts of social predators—tabloid gossipmongers, assorted political nuts and any number of loonies who gathered in the street outside their house in Guildford, 27 miles southwest of London. Zola was labeled a racist, an opportunist, a traitor, a moneygrubber.
Her parents were of no help to her in this stormy time. Frank and Tossie had been married more than 30 years and had produced six children, of whom Zola was the youngest. Frank was a shortish, balding man with a very pink, very British complexion. Tossie was quite large, with rugged Afrikaner features. "My father was liberal in his outlook on life, my mother conservative; he spoke English, she Afrikaans," Zola says. In this case opposites did not continue to attract, and the two fought for years. When the Budds moved to England, Frank loved life there, Tossie detested it, and their fights grew more furious. "If those quarrels had happened in Bloemfontein, the trouble would have been over in a week," says Zola, "but under all that pressure, they were driven to a flash point. The marriage broke in pieces, and so did our world. Two weeks before the Olympics I moved out of the house, and I told my father that if he came to the Olympics, I would not compete."
Frank didn't come, and, unfortunately, Zola did compete, producing the colossal trip-up with Decker in the 3,000-meter race. The collision left Decker sprawled in a rage on the infield while Budd wobbled in seventh, amid a bombardment of boos from the partisan U.S. crowd. Though she looked badly beaten at the time, Budd wrote in her autobiography that she could quite easily have won a medal but that she had purposely slowed down after the accident: "I had to finish the race. What I couldn't endure, however, was the thought of facing all those people on the rostrum. It sounds easy to say, but I knew once the race had started that I was good enough to win a silver or bronze medal. Deep inside me, though, was now a dread of standing on a rostrum, and I began running slower and slower. People passed me and I didn't care—everything had collapsed and I just wanted out."
She saw Decker in the stadium tunnel and told her she was sorry. "Don't bother!" snapped Decker. Five months later, in December 1984, a Dear Zola letter from Decker came, which said, among other things, "I've been wanting to write this letter to you for a long time. The reason I haven't sent [it] before is because I was sure that you would not receive it personally. I simply want to apologize to you for hurting your feelings at the Olympics...it was a very hard moment for me emotionally and I reacted in an emotional manner.... The next time we meet I would like to shake your hand and let everything that has happened be put behind us. Who knows; sometimes even the fiercest competitors become friends."
The tranquil Zola Pieterse says now of her first chaotic year abroad, "If I had it to do over, I would do it quite the same, except I would not have tried to compete in Los Angeles. Not because of what happened with Mary. That was fate, and if it had been anyone else, it would have been nothing. But the Games were too soon for me. I needed more time to make the adjustment to the world outside South Africa. Maybe I could have done it if my family had given me support, but there was none. When I most needed help, the most important people in my life were not there at all."
Of course, the trouble continued after the Olympics. Zola discovered that her father was pocketing a lot of the money from the Mail, and she went home, emotionally ravaged, to Bloemfontein. Jannie Momberg, a wealthy Cape Town wine farmer, a member of parliament and a vice-president of the South African Amateur Athletic Association, began advising her. "We nursed her back slowly into world competition, and she had a great year in 1985. Physically she was in superb condition, mentally she was pathetic," he says. That year, Budd lost three rematches with Decker but won the world cross-country championship in Portugal and set a world record of 14:48.07 in a 5,000-meter race in London. In '86, she repeated as world cross-country champion and set an indoor world mark of 8:39.79 in the 3,000.
The antiapartheid protests against her never let up, especially when she was in England, where she had to live six months a year to maintain her citizenship. They were led by Sam Ramsamy, a militant South African of Indian descent who had been in exile in London since the early 1970s. Zola wrote bitterly in her book: "My quarrel with them was not over apartheid, but over the way they had attacked me and I did not believe they had any right to use me as a target in their bid to dismantle apartheid." Ironically, Ramsamy is now chairman of the Interim National Olympic Committee of South Africa, which has been the transitional body bringing the single-race Olympic groups together so the likes of Zola Pieterse can compete in international meets.