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On This Date in Sports August 10, 1984: Olympic Trip

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

American Mary Decker was the star of middle-distance running entering the Olympics as the favorite to win Gold in the Women’s 3000 meters. She had set World Record in the 3,000 meters and 10,000 meters in the years leading into the Los Angeles Games. It seemed Decker was on track for Olympic glory when her feet got entangled with Zola Budd sending her to the ground in agony as Maricica Puica of Romania won the Gold Medal.

Born on August 4, 1958, in Bunnvale, New Jersey, Mary Decker began competing in running events shortly after moving to Garden Grove, California, at the age of ten. She quickly became a star runner, winning a Silver Medal in the 800 meters at the age of 14 at a US-Soviet Track Meet in Minsk in 1973, after being ruled too young to compete at the 1972 Munich Games. Running at such a young age took a toll on Mary Decker, as she developed Compartment Syndrome in her legs and was unable to compete at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. After undergoing surgery in 1978, Decker’s career was back on track as she set the American Record for running a mile for Women with a time of 4:17.55. Once again, she was robbed of competing in the Olympics due to the 1980 U.S.-led boycott of the games in Moscow.

In the next four years, Mary Decker became the top middle and long-distance runner in the world. In 1982 after marrying fellow distance runner Ron Tabb, Mary Decker-Tabb set six World Records ranging from the mile to the 10,000 meters. She won the James E. Sullivan Award given to America’s Top Amateur Athlete, becoming just the fifth female to win the honor. Decker divorced in 1983 but continued to achieve greatness on the track, winning the 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters in the World Championships as she was named Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated.

When Mary Decker took the track at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the only achievement that eluded her was an Olympic medal. Without some of her biggest rivals from the Soviet Union, the Women’s 3,000 meters felt like a coronation for Decker as she lined up in the starting blocks. One potential rival to her run to glory was Zola Budd, an 18-year old from South Africa who ran the race barefoot. Budd’s appearance at the game came with great controversy as she obtained British Citizenship just before the game, allowing her to compete for Great Britain. At the time, South Africa was barred from the Olympic Competition due to its human rights violations under Apartheid. Budd had set a record in the 5,000 meters a year earlier but was considered a real wild card heading into the race. As the race started, Mary Decker found her way to the front of the pack, with Budd just behind for the first three laps. On the fourth lap, Zola Budd made her move taking over the lead. Decker looked to regain the lead, and two raced side by side. As they reached the start of the fifth lap, Decker got tripped up by Budd and fell into the infield. Zola Budd, who was roundly booed, was initially disqualified as she slowed and finished in seventh place. The medals would end up going to Maricica Puica of Romania, who set an Olympic Record won Gold, while Wendy Sly of Great Britain took Silver and Lynn Williams of Canada took the Bronze Medal.

After being carried off by her fiancée Richard Slaney, British Discus thrower, Mary Decker gave an emotional press conference, refusing to accept Zola Budd’s apology. Decker and Budd would eventually make up before a race in 1985, as Decker remained one of the top runners in the world. However, after having a child in 1986, Mary Decker’s career went into a sharp decline. She would compete at the Seoul Olympics but did not win a medal. In 1992, Mary Decker failed to qualify for the Olympics. Looking for a comeback, she qualified in the 5,000 meters for the Atlanta Games but was quickly eliminated as she fought off rumors of doping after a failed urine test. The loss in Atlanta assured Mary Decker would retire without winning an Olympic Medal.