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Zola Budd's number reappears 25 years later

September 12, 2009 |  2:59 pm


On the night in the 1984 Olympics that Zola Budd ran her famous race against Mary Decker, Dave Davis of Pasadena was a track and field steward.

When Decker tripped on Budd's heel, went down in the infield (pictured above) and sprawled on the ground, writhing in pain, Davis was right there and ran across to try to help. As Olympic doctor Tony Daly attended to her, Davis helping, he noticed a piece of paper on the ground. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, not placing any significance on it in that heat of the moment.

The next day, the Los Angeles Times ran a photo by freelance photographer Hiram Clausen of Santa Barbara, showing the moment Decker started to fall. It showed her reaching toward Budd for balance and tearing the uniform number off her back.

The moment is among the more celebrated in Olympic history. Budd was an 18-year-old barefoot runner from South Africa who held numerous world records and was running for Britain because South Africa's apartheid racial policies made its athletes ineligible. Decker was the United States' darling in the middle distance races.

Neither had met before, nor raced. And in reality, neither was the favorite to win the 3,000 meters that night in the Coliseum -- favorite Maricia Puicia of Romania did win -- but the public had already made Budd and Decker into a big rivalry. So when the collision occurred and they were the two involved, it was worldwide news.

Budd went back to England and, soon, South Africa. Davis put the piece of paper, Budd's number, in a box with other Olympic memorabilia and, as time went on, thought little of it.

Then, this summer, with stories running in the paper about the 25th anniversary of the L.A. Olympics, Davis came across a story about Budd, who is now in Myrtle Beach, Fla., on a two-year visa to run in U.S. senior events. Like most others, he had assumed she was back in South Africa for good. When he read the story, he called the writer, got an e-mail address, wrote Budd to see if she wanted her number and got an excited response.

"I have always wondered what happened to my number and now, 25 years later, it appears," she e-mailed Davis.

She said she would be proud to have it to show to her three children, and Davis mailed it to her.

That night in the Coliseum, when Decker went down, the crowd placed the blame on Budd and booed her all the way around the track the rest of the way. She has since said she was so intimidated by that that, while she is certain she could have run fast enough to win a medal, she stayed back because she now wanted no part of a medal ceremony in front of an angry American audience. She finished seventh.

That reaction by the crowd that night was unfair.

Davis' gesture makes up for some of that.

-- Bill Dwyre

Photo credit: Hiram Clausen