The Olympic Distance Running Controversy of 1984

Did Zola Budd Trip Mary Decker?

Mary Decker Falling in 3000 Meter Race
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Did Zola Budd trip Mary Decker in 1984 in the Olympic Games? The video was inconclusive but there’s no doubt that the 3000-meter race produced one of the greatest controversies in Olympic track and field history.

Zola Gains British Citizenship to Compete in the 1984 Olympics

Budd was already a well-known and controversial competitor prior to the Los Angeles Games. The barefoot runner was born in South Africa, which was then banned from the Olympics due to its government’s apartheid policy. When Budd applied for British citizenship in early 1984 her request was expedited and she became a British citizen in time to compete in Los Angeles where she earned a spot in the 3000 final.

Mary Trips in the 3000-Meter Women's Olympic Race

The women's 3000-meter race was hotly anticipated as the media presented it as a duel between American world champion Mary Decker and Zola Budd. But they weren't the competitors, as Maricica Puica from Romania had set the fastest time in 1984.

Just past the midpoint of the race, with Budd slightly ahead of Decker, the two came in contact but neither broke stride. Moments later, however, Budd moved lower on the track and Decker stepped on Budd’s heel, causing Budd to stumble and Decker to trip over Budd. Budd got up and continued but never drew back into contention, finishing seventh. Decker remained down with an injured thigh. Romania’s Maricica Puica went on to win the race.

The Blame Game

Decker angrily blamed Budd for the incident, saying there was “no doubt” that Budd was at fault. Track officials initially agreed, disqualifying Budd for obstruction, but reversed their decision after reviewing tapes of the race. These seemed to indicate that Budd’s move, while perhaps a bit abrupt, was made in reaction to other runners’ movements and was unintentional.

It is the responsibility of the trailing runners to avoid contact with the runners ahead of them. Leaders should try to move predictably, but those behind them need to take precautions.

Budd was roundly booed as she completed the race and said in her autobiography that she deliberately slowed down in the face of the hostile crowd. She said she tried to apologize to Decker as they left the field but was rebuffed.

Mary Decker said many years later that she didn't think she was tripped deliberately and her fall was due to her own inexperience in running in a pack. In any event, the tangle ended up costing both runners the chance for an Olympic medal in 1984. They had a rematch at Crystal Palace in July 1985, with Mary Decker-Slaney winning and finishing 13 seconds ahead of Zola Budd, who finished fourth.

After the Olympics

Budd competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in South Africa in the 3000 meters. She broke the world record for the women's 5000 meters in 1985. She won the World Cross Country Championships in 1985 and 1986.

Decker's record for the 1500 meters stood for 32 years and other US records for the mile, 2000 meters, and 3000 meters were still standing as of 2017. She was the first woman to run less than 4:20 for the mile. However, she was plagued with stress fractures and was disqualified due to doping tests from the 1996 Olympic Games.