Mary Decker-Slaney - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 4

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

Olympic gold has eluded many athletes, but probably none in such a dramatic fashion as Mary Decker-Slaney. Her collision with Zola Budd in the 3000 meters final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had the proportion of a Shakespearean tragedy. It was not just bad luck of a stellar athlete. On this Friday afternoon, August 10th, 1984, America's sweetheart, everybody's darling (especially the media's) had fallen from grace (picture: The Guardian).

To understand the whole drama, one has to remember the buildup. As perfectly portrayed in the ESPN documentary "Runner", Mary Decker had risen to stardom in running-mad America for years. She participated in her first marathon at the age of twelve, took the spotlight in the late 1970s and was tabbed by the media to become the world's best and surely most popular female athlete. But bad look became a steady companion for Decker. In later years, many injurys hampered her career. In 1980, she won the 1500 meters at the U. S. Olympic trials, but the boycott prevented her from perhaps picking up the gold in Moscow.

Nevertheless, the rise of Mary Decker-Slaney continued, culminating at the inaugral World Championships in 1983 at Helsinki, where she smashed the Soviet runners and won the gold both in the 1500 and 3000 meters. One year earlier, Sports Illustrated (picture) had put the world record holder on the cover - Decker had become a "hot commodity".

The stage was set for an Olympic triumph in 1984 at Los Angeles, and when the Eastern Bloc countries declared to stay home, there seemed to be just one person who could stop Decker-Slaney: 18 year-old Zola Budd from South Africa, who had gained British citizenship at the eleventh hour to become eligible for L. A.

The much hyped and anticipated duel lasted only a few laps. Then Decker-Slaney hit the heel of barefoot running Budd and stumbled to the ground. While America's TV audience watched in shock and Decker-Slaney sat crying beside the track, the race continued and Romania's Maricica Puica grabbed the gold with a totally unnerved Budd finishing merely seventh (picture: UK Sports Chat).

Decker first blamed Budd for her own failure, the British runner was disqualified, but shortly after reinstated. Anyway, everybody knew that on this day Decker-Slaney's best shot at an Olympic gold had gone for good. She never even came close to another. Four years later in Seoul, Decker-Slaney finished eighth in the 1500 and tenth in the 3000 meters final. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, she did not make it past the 5000 meters heats.

What remains from Decker-Slaney's later life is a positive drug test in 1996 that was followed by a long legal battle and finally a suspension. The confrontation with Budd is history that even the two protagonists have put behind themselves. 32 years after "the fall", Mary Decker-Slaney and Zola Budd-Pieterse met at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum again. They went for a jog - no bad feelings anymore (picture: The Guardian).

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