Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd – Kyle Keiderling

I loved the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Not as much, though, as the 1984 Winter Olympics, which were slightly life-altering. Torvill and Dean? Come on.) I was a kid; I loved the fact that my country did so well, discounting the fact that so many Eastern bloc countries boycotted. I grew up with my dad watching ABC sports and Jim McKay, and it was glorious. I watched everything from gymnastics to javelin.

I’m not sure anymore if I actually remember the Women’s 3000 race, or if I’m filling in with what I’ve seen since (and of course I’ve watched it in several videos on YouTube), but when I requested this book from Netgalley it was with a vague feeling of “oh right, Zola Budd“, and a hint of a growl. Because that’s how it ran, live: Marty Liquori commented during ABC’s coverage of the race that it was Budd’s inexperience in international competition that caused the incident. Sorry – the capital-I-Incident. And track officials disqualified her. And there was Mary Decker, sobbing and thrashing in pain in the infield, then assisted and finally carried off. On YouTube there’s a nearly half-hour video of the live coverage, and Liquori puts the fault on Zola Budd several times. If that’s all you watch, you’ll never know that the disqualification (moot, since she was well out of medals placement anyway) was reversed, and that the next day Liquori – having watched the video a few more times himself– changed his mind, at least partway. And you’ll never know about the blood pouring down the back of Budd’s leg from Mary Decker’s spikes – I’m baffled by the fact that no one seems to have noticed. You’ll certainly never know why Zola Budd actually dropped back from the lead to end up in seventh place.

In fact, it’s truly weird to read the detailed account of the race in this book and then go watch it, because that’s not all you don’t hear about. Quite a lot happened in that six-minute race.

I’m just not sure if even all the events of this race, and those leading up to it and succeeding from it, quite justify 368 pages. The writing tends toward repetition, with Reality-Show-Style Recaps cropping up now and then and simple duplication of facts and sometimes phrases more often. (Example: Mary Decker seems to have wanted a bodyguard, and the reader is told so twice.) And there was a lot of material that surprised me – including a detailed etymological exploration of “Bedlam”. There were brief (or not-so-brief) biographies of other runners – which makes sense, in context (holy cow, Joan Hansen. I mean really. Her college changed the program she had already earned 129 credits in, and she had to change her tack. Then a coach killed himself. Then two friends died in a car crash. Then a stalker started terrorizing her. Then she had a bike accident, which left her temporarily paralyzed. Then when she had at least partly recovered from that she was in a car accident and was temporarily paralyzed again. Then she developed blood poisoning. Then she got the flu. This was all in something less than a one year period, culminating in a hard fall before Mary Decker’s in the 3000 meter race at the Olympics, from which she got up and finished the race I have to add, as so many have before me…). There was also quite a lot of information about drug use in sports in general, track specifically, and Mary Decker’s veins more specifically. With all of that, though, there’s no information (unless I missed it? I don’t think I was skimming) on what happened to the records set by Chinese athletes during a period in which pretty much everyone in the West knew darned well they were using drugs; basically, they set all kinds of records, then urine testing started to be more serious and the most questionable runners disappeared – so, did the records stand? Were they revoked? I should look it up. (I shouldn’t have to look it up.)

A quirk of the writer’s which irked me a bit, and then a bit more, and then a bit more as the book wore on, was the tendency to provide a chunk of information, followed by a paragraph break and a dramatic statement. Example:

“Her stay in England had been nothing short of an ordeal by fire, and she had managed to survive. She had done so, as she explained, through her ‘ability to dissociate from my surroundings.’
“She had to be.”

It happened over and over. And over. It’s an effective trick now and then; when it appears every other page, the effect is muted.

There is a great deal of exploration of the training programs for Decker and Budd, as in how many miles they ran in a week and how far in each session and so on; I know next to nothing about track and competitive running, and I would have actually loved more basic stuff. I mean, every unimpaired human being can run at some point in her life – what makes a runner? How do you become faster? Maybe it was in there, but I didn’t glean from it what I was looking for. My bad? I don’t know. There was a great deal of data in this book, but not what I wanted, or not delivered in such a way that it stuck.

One focus of a lot of the data was the terrifying number of injuries suffered by these two women, especially Decker. Lord, the sheer number of surgeries she had to have just before the age of 40 is queasy-making. “A reporter visiting her for a profile in People magazine said that an ultrasound photo of Mary’s lower extremities would ‘discourage most people from even a casual jog'” – and she was running tens of miles per day.

The book is very much slanted in favor Zola Budd. This could well be based on all the documentary evidence the author was able to turn up – part of which is Budd’s own autobiography. It could also be based in part on the fact that while Budd made herself available to speak to the author, Decker refused to – apparently she refused several requests. Given the tone of a few narrative comments about her, one wonders what kind of tone those refusals took. (“If she was America’s sweetheart,” Reilly offered, “America needed body armor.”) It’s a chicken-and-egg thing – did Decker’s refusal lead to a bit of a tone in the author’s voice, or did an already existing certain tone to which Decker was alerted lead to her refusal? Certainly the description of Decker’s behavior after she fell, writhing in the infield, was less than sympathetic, and there wasn’t much journalistic detachment. Don’t get me wrong, I took a certain malicious pleasure in it, but I’m not sure it was an appropriate tenor. (“Running her mouth”? “The woman who almost always looks like she just had her parking spot stolen”? Really?)

There were also a handful of fourth-wall-breaking narrative comments. Though I did like “Ever see a fast yak?”

The story was all a bit disappointing. One of my takeaways is See? This is why I read fiction. In this tale there are so many coaches out for themselves, putting their athletes second at best; so many athletes behaving badly, and so many family members behaving even worse … There are so many officials and journalists doing abominable things… It’s saddening. I have to say, I did not know the background of Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee. I only saw him during the opening and (I think) closing ceremonies, and he was … avuncular. I liked him, the little I saw of him. He was enveloped in the golden glow of my teenaged idealism. And he so did not deserve it. He was kind of horrible. It’s a dent in a treasured memory. Oh well. So often the way with … life…

One more quote: [In South Africa] the small minivans that are used as taxis, and are a principal mode of transport in the predominantly black townships outside major cities, are called Zola Budds because they are small and fast. Some call the larger conventional buses Mary Deckers, because they are bigger and have more accidents.

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