August 11, 1984. Twelve runners lined up for the women’s 3,000m at the Los Angeles Olympic games.
Everyone knew this was a two-person race between a hot favourite and a virtually unknown.
It was a contest between a 26-year-old American, Mary Decker and an 18-year-old South African Zola Budd who became a British citizen because of the apartheid policy, which banned South Africa from the Games.
The stakes were high for both runners.
Mary Decker was the darling of Team USA. She has a string of world records behind her. Three chances at Olympic success had evaded her. She waited so long. 1984 was her time.
Zola Budd was famously known for running without shoes. In one race she broke the 5km world record – previously held by Decker – by six seconds.
The entire stadium of spectators was eagerly expecting a historic showdown.
But what actually happened created a sporting upheaval in the history of the Olympics.
Mary and Zola were both leading the pack. Then at 1,700m Zola tried to move in front of her rival. And the unexpected happened.
Mary tripped and fell, wailing in agony at the side of the track. The race was instantly over for Mary.
Meanwhile Zola continued running to a chorus of boos from the crowd. She finished an inglorious seventh – a conscious and deliberate move.
Zola came to Mary to apologize but the latter snapped reply was “Don’t bother.” Mary held a tearful press conference, blaming Zola for her fall.
Decades pass since the “fall” incident. Neither Mary nor Zola could shake off the horrid memory.
Then a film crew doing a documentary brought them together. It gave them a chance to hear each other story.
Zola, who is now 50 has a turbulent past with the unexpected death of her elder sister, a father who cheated her of a huge sum of money and a husband who was unfaithful – although they are now reconciled.
Mary’s story was none the better. She started out as the girl who won races with her hair in pigtails. She was someone who couldn’t stand losing, even throwing a baton at one opponent. When her parents separated, she felt sorely abandoned. When one was of her mother’s boyfriends became abusive, she packed a bag and left home.
For the first time after decades, Mary and Zola were surprised to discover the many common threads in their lives. They had their share of struggles and regrets. They were both vulnerable. “I think in another world we could have been friends,” says Mary.
That reunion helped put to rest the sad event of 1984. It no longer weighs heavy on their minds. They are even committed to stay in touch.
Mary Decker and Zola Budd became friends after 32 years.
This story gives hope for every fall out.
After decades, Jacob was reconciled with Esau (Genesis 33:1-17).
After decades, Joseph was reconciled with his brothers (Genesis 50:15-21).
After decades, the apostle Paul was reconciled with the “useless” deserter John Mark (II Timothy 4:11).
Is there any relationship so broken that’s too hard to mend?