Keiderling, Kyle. Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 341. Notes, Bibliography, Index. $27.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Kristy McCray
“The greatest fear of any athlete is that they will be remembered for their most embarrassing moment. In the case of Mary and Zola, their collision in 1984, much to their mutual chagrin, has forever linked them in our collective mind. . . . That it should do so to the exclusion of their respective spectacular careers is as tragic as the collision itself” (p. 297).
These lines from Kyle Keiderling’s epilogue are the perfect summary of a nearly 300-page tome that painstakingly details the rise and fall of two of the world’s best middle-distance runners, Mary (Decker) Slaney and Zola (Budd) Pieterse. Born eight years and continents apart, Mary and Zola are inextricably linked in the minds of many sports fans, Olympic enthusiasts, and runners for their collision during the 3,000-meter race in 1984 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Keiderling’s meticulous research, including multiple personal interviews with Zola and other athletes, coaches, and family members, offers an in-depth look at Mary, Zola, and their lives before, during, after the infamous 3k race.
As someone who was just out of diapers when the 1984 Olympics Games took place, my knowledge of the event is limited to a few articles in popular press (i.e., Runner’s World). I am not a sport historian, but someone who finds pockets of history to be fascinating. As a sport management professor, I teach on topics such as sport sociology, sport law, and organization and management. I approached this book review from the perspective a long-distance runner myself who wanted to learn more about two highly accomplished women who became a polarizing footnote in Olympic running culture.
Throughout Olympic Collision, Kiederling often pits the image of a young, naïve, overwhelmed victim in Zola Budd with the vision of Mary Decker as the experienced, stubborn, and strident villain. Beginning in the Acknowledgements, Keiderling reiterates his thanks for the cooperation and support of so many coaches and athletes (including Zola Budd), but singles out the older runner: “The sole exception was Mary Decker Slaney, who refused to acknowledge the numerous requests by mail and email for an interview” (p. ix). The reader senses this foreshadowing and is ready for a fight – I do not expect Mary to be painted in a positive light.
Keiderling weaves together the stories of Zola and Mary in a way that offers up striking similarities between the women, despite their sharp differences. This is one of the most interesting elements of the book, if predictable at times. Decker was born in 1958 in New Jersey, her birth “unremarkable” (p. 1), and the family soon moved to Southern California, where she picked up running at age 11 when she entered a local race on a whim. In South Africa in 1966, Budd came into the world after 36 hours of labor, born to a mother who nearly died from childbirth. She began running with her older sister, Jenny, around the family farm. Both women experienced turbulent family life and saw running as their escape. Both women were described by those around them, from coaches to family members, in superlatives – “[Mary] was the most motivated and talented runner I have ever seen” (p. 1) or “[Zola] was the most dedicated runner I have ever seen” (p. 46). And both women earned some of the highest accolades in running, short of winning an Olympic medal.
In many ways, the women were very similar – raw talent; extremely dedicated; committed to their sport despite injuries and pain; and surrounded by men in their lives who hurt them. For example, Keiderling describes Mary’s relationship with her father as motivation to succeed: “Inside her was a powerful hurt and the painful recognition that the man she had known as her father had denied her” (p. 21). Zola’s father, who profited significantly from her running prowess, could arguably be blamed for setting up the young, inexperienced 18-year-old for failure at the 1984 Olympics.
The stories of Mary Decker and Zola Budd are captivating. Keiderling is an excellent story-teller, building up anticipation for the big race. There is consistent foreshadowing in the narrative. For example, this is evident in Mary’s reluctance to allow anyone to run in front of her at age 15. Mary’s running partners were admonished by a coach, who “told us in no uncertain terms that we were never, ever, to run in front of Mary in any circumstances: ‘You don’t run in front of Mary. She always has to be in front’” (p. 13). On race day in 1984, Keiderling describes how “Mary Decker is no longer in control of the race. Budd has taken that role, and as Decker’s long history has shown, she is not where she wanted to be” (p. 150). This is but one of the many ways that Keiderling’s narrative comes full circle.
Keiderling’s description of the 1983 World Championships is story-telling done right, especially for a reader who was unaware of the race’s outcome. Further, the play-by-play description of the 1984 3,000-meter Olympic race is riveting – under other circumstances, I would have watched the infamous collision before reading this book, but I refrained for this review. As my knowledge of the actual incident in 1984 was limited, and the initial story-telling efforts of Keiderling were strong, I wanted to see if the actual collision could live up to its infamy in his words. And it certainly did. After a strong review of each other 10 participants, the buildup to the 3k race was fervent. While reading, I strongly felt as if I had been sitting in the L.A. Coliseum on that hot August day when Mary Decker was “sprawled on her back, crying loudly, her chest heaving with each tortured sob” (p. 151) as the fans begin to booing at Zola “like a giant wave cresting and crashing down” (p. 152). After finishing the book, a quick Google search yielded old recordings of the race, and Keiderling was spot-on his descriptions of the event.
As any running enthusiast, sport historian, or Olympic fan knows, in the immediate aftermath of the race, Mary Decker – and the sportscaster live on ABC – blamed Zola Budd for Mary’s fall. Later, TV replays and the media would give the benefit to Budd, but the damage had been done to the young track runner’s psyche. Already beaten down by her detractors for becoming a British citizen to be eligible to run in the Olympics, and the anti-apartheid protestors who tormented her, Zola could not handle the blame and attention for Mary’s downfall.
After the 1984 Olympics, both women had mixed success. This is also where the book struggles to hold onto the reader. The infamous Olympic Collision was done and over by page 165. The remainder of the book fastidiously details the careers of each runner – neither would achieve Olympic fame, despite Mary’s efforts up to and in the 1996 Atlanta Games. The book’s second half is bogged down in the details of exactly which races Zola ran, how many surgeries Mary continued to have, and so on – I continued reading, waiting for the next big cataclysmic event in their running careers – which never happened. Perhaps my disappointment in the book’s ending mirrors that of Mary Decker, whose 1984 Olympic legacy will forever be shared with failed drug tests and doping accusations.
Overall, Keiderling strikes a strong balance between writing a book for historians, running enthusiasts, and non-runners alike. He provides strong background for those who may be unfamiliar with the founding of the Olympics, or the strong running community in Eugene, Oregon, or early doping efforts. He offers insight into various running regimens and techniques, such as the Lydiard training program, which, incidentally, this runner now wants to try for her next half marathon. In Olympic Collision, Keiderling deftly weaves the story of “two lives running parallel for a while, with common aspirations and convergent dreams,” quoting Che Guevarra in the book’s table of contents.
Kristy McCray is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Otterbein University in Westerville, OH. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow her sporadic Twitter usage: @KristyMcCray