Sunday, August 12, 2012

Zola Budd

One day, when I was still a tunic-wearing-school-going girl, a photo and its caption stared out from the sports page of the our morning newspaper.
“Give me Decker!” the caption screamed. The photo was of Zola Budd. She was running on what looked like a fresh green meadow. She was barefoot.

Zola Budd had just sprung out of nowhere and was challenging Mary Decker Slaney for the 3000 m Olympic gold medal. This was in 1984 and she was 18. The Olympics came to me with this. 

Somewhere around the same time, a friend and I had looked over an issue of TIME magazine at her house. The cover caught my attention- it said something like “being curvaceous is no longer a thing, being sexy is in”. There were pictures of both types of women, one of whom I felt was too angular and mean looking. But that look was IN! Now what to do.
The hilarity was that both my friend and I were only school girls and were from conservative families. There was one difference- she was very rich and I was middle class. I remember she didn't seem intrigued in this shift of mankind's diktat on our future bodies and I wasn't puzzled enough to inquire.
It was the age when we all read Mills & Boon (on the sly) at school and fell in love with all the heroes. Then there were the usual cricket and movie star crushes. I was also slowly but surely gravitating towards Tolstoy and Tagore, at home, in my father's collection.
Somehow all these came to a head with the picture of Zola Budd.

News coverage showed Zola as unconventional and controversial. I only vaguely understood these concepts. Her picture and all the fanfare around her was in the news. But what caught my eye, I think, was her self-identity. I observed it had to do with her running. It didn't have money, looks, family, studies or romance as the source. It wasn't coming from opposition to something. It was self-made and looked effortless.

18-22 seemed like the magical age, when one can just step out of a setting and start running. Into a waiting world. Something seemed possible if one tried hard enough. But all this was still a cloud in my mind and only made sense in retrospect.

The Olympic race as you probably know, went terribly wrong. Mary Decker, a clear favorite in her hometown of Los Angeles, fell down and hurt her hip. Zola Budd, who was leading the race at the time of the fall was first disqualified for cutting in too soon and then reinstated after video viewing. She came 7th. She later said she deliberately fell back because she did not want to win in that booing atmosphere. Many years later Mary Decker blamed her fall on her own inexperience in running in a pack.

Every Olympics I am reminded of that time, the suspense and tragedy of that race and the understated anticipation of impending possibilities that the picture evoked. That things actually happen in life, not just in books.
But training and competing in sports are only a part of life. There's a peak and then life goes on. How is she, what does Zola do now? Did her sporting career add to her living skills? I looked her up on the internet with some hesitation.
She coaches and also runs. Still barefoot.