Mary Decker’s ill-fated clash with Zola Budd at the Los Angeles Games is one of the most talked about races in athletics history

After winning the men’s marathon title at the Los Angeles Olympics, the great Portuguese runner, Carlos Lopes, remarked: “It was like any other day. I got up, had breakfast, made love to my wife and went for a run.”

If only Mary Decker and Zola Budd’s Olympic experiences were that straightforward. Instead, after a split-second clash of legs, their much-anticipated clash dissolved into a tragedy tinged with so much ill-feeling that debate surrounding the incident rumbles on to this day.

The Los Angeles Games began on July 28 with an opening ceremony that saw a rocket man wearing a jetpack spectacularly flying around the Coliseum, before the Olympic cauldron was lit by Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion and actor. As a sign of the times, the theme music for Chariots of Fire boomed around the stadium as the ceremony drew to a close. For Zola and Mary it was a prophetic choice of audio given the 1981 Oscar-winning movie featured the story of two runners with complicated and differing backgrounds and personalities on their journey to the Olympic Games of 1924.

A city famed for its sun and celebrities was staging its second Olympics following its hosting of the 1932 Games and led skilfully by its chief organiser, Peter Ueberroth, it was set to revolutionise the format of the event with the use of corporate sponsorship, private fundraising and money gained from selling television rights. After the terrorist-damaged Munich, debt-ridden Montreal and boycott-ruined Moscow Games, the Olympic brand was so damaged that only Los Angeles and Tehran showed any interest in holding the 1984 Games. With its grid-locked roads and racial tensions, LA looked an unlikely saviour for the Games as well. Yet it rose to the occasion by producing a dazzling spectacle that nearby Disneyland itself would have been proud of.

Originally, the women’s 3000m was set to consist of heats, semi-finals and a final, but the first round was scrapped due to lack of runners, which was a relief for Mary given a recent Achilles injury and general fragility. This meant the heats would now be held on August 8 with the final two days later on Friday August 10, just as the final weekend of the entire Games was set to unfold.

For Mary, Los Angeles was familiar territory as she had grown up in the area, raced there regularly and lived just up the coast in Oregon. But coming from the other side of the world, Zola travelled over in late July to acclimatise in the British holding camp in Point Loma, San Diego.

On July 23, Zola had been officially accepted as a GB citizen in Los Angeles by the IOC despite Ethiopia and Finland leading a few last-minute objections. Finally, after four months of controversy and tension, she was finally in California and due to race in the Olympics in British colours.

Psychologically, though, Zola was going into the Games with a negative frame of mind after a traumatic summer that had involved non-stop media speculation, anti-apartheid demonstrations and behind-the-scenes family squabbles. “My desire to run was being soured,” she said in her 1989 autobiography. “Like a jug of milk having lemon juice squeezed into it drop by drop.”

Like Mary, Zola had a last-minute injury scare, too, when she tweaked her right hamstring in her final track session a week before the heats. Mentally exhausted, she now found herself with a physical problem at the worst possible time.

At least she had escaped the cold English weather. The Californian climate reminded her of South Africa and the warmth brightened her mood. Visits to Disneyland and Sea World together with an enjoyable audience with Princess Anne were also happier moments to interrupt the gloom.

In addition, Zola found she got on well with British athletes and management like Lynn Davies, the 1964 Olympic long jump champion, whose warm, easy-going manner helped relax her as her big races approached. Always an animal lover, she was also delighted to be given a toy dog lucky mascot from javelin thrower Sanderson, who must have surely owned one herself as she went on to win gold at the Games.

In contrast, Mary was at home, literally, in the familiar surroundings of LA. Her Achilles injury scare was now behind her and she was buoyed by the form she showed in her 2000m world best five days before the 3000m Olympic heats.

Outside athletics, Mary was happy and content. While Zola was surrounded by her dysfunctional family, the American runner had fallen in love with English discus thrower Richard Slaney. At 6ft 7in tall, 22 stone in weight and a couple of years older than Mary, he was an intimidating character and, as it turned out, the perfect man to shield her during the media melee that would erupt in Los Angeles. “Richard is the first to be impressed with Mary not as a runner, but as a person,” Mary’s coach, Dick Brown, noted approvingly.

Slaney was an excellent athlete himself. The son of an engineer and bookkeeper, after gaining a degree in aeronautical engineering from Sussex University in England in 1977 he went to study in San Diego on a sports scholarship – later describing it as the best move of his life – and in 1985 beat Bill Tancred’s British discus record with a throw of 65.16m.

Despite being a gentle giant of a man, Slaney possessed good sprinting speed, which impressed American football coaches. He failed to make the cut in gridiron, though. “Being fast makes no difference if you’re running in the opposite direction to the ball!” he would later joke in trademark self-deprecating fashion.

Sticking to throwing the discus, he was eliminated in the qualifying rounds in Los Angeles, but outside track and field he was a talented strongman competitor and twice winner of the Britain’s Strongest Man crown. In 1980 he even finished runner-up in the Europe’s Strongest Man contest to Geoff Capes, a fellow GB thrower and twice winner of the World’s Strongest Man title.

Runner’s World once described him as “quiet without being passive, deliberate without being sluggish, easy without being gentle … He is a man secure enough in his own strength not to be threatened by his wife’s ambition”.

Mary met him at a sports dinner in New York in spring 1983. At first they did not hit it off brilliantly, but later Slaney and his friend Daley Thompson were training in Oregon and were invited to Mary’s house. “I had been separated from ‘the other one’ for a while and I was really lonely,” Mary told People magazine in 1986, referring dismissively to her first husband Tabb. “Richard and I became really good friends before we started seeing each other romantically.”

Romance blossomed quickly, though. At the World Championships in 1983, Tabb was surprised to see his estranged wife with a new man before their divorce was finalised. Slaney was establishing himself as the No.1 love of Mary’s life and just two days before the 3000m heats at the Los Angeles Games, they announced they would be getting married at the beginning of 1985, triggering bizarre speculation that Mary, like Zola, might end up with a British passport.

Three days before the 3000m heats, Zola was driven into the Athletes’ Village at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), minus the presence of Pieter Labuschagne, whose relationship with Zola was becoming increasingly strained. Taking the opposite approach, Mary stayed out of the Village and checked into a hotel instead, which was probably sensible given the pressure she was under as one of the faces of the Games.

Mary did, however, meet the press before the 3000m heats kicked off and gave an insight into her state of mind going into the Games. “The secret is to put yourself in a state of relaxation and ignore emotions if they are negative things,” she said. “Life is about wanting something real bad and then setting out to get it. A lot of people are concentrating on seeing negative things happen to me this week. My positive thinking will overcome them.

“I believe deeply that there are more people around the world who want me to receive my dues than there are in this country who want me to receive negative rewards. I feel you’ve gotta grab positive things when they are offered to you.”

Not everyone warmed to Mary’s swagger, though. Among the sportswriters listening to her that day was Frank Keating, the long-time Guardian journalist, who reported critically: “Miss Decker is hugely and humanly fallible. When she talks about running you feel she’s at a session on the couch with her analyst. Running is not simple; life is not necessarily joyous. It is all jargon, positives and negatives and every ‘ism’ in the book, starting with women’s libbism. Mary is the Queen of the Jogger Generation.”

On the flipside, Keating described Zola as “a blinkered, self-possessed, purposeful and uncomplicated young lady. She has a one-track vision. And she, as well, is one heck of a runner.”

Even fans of Zola knew Mary was the hot favourite. She was the double world champion in world record-breaking form and the Olympic title was hers to lose.

“Having missed the 1976 Games through injury,” wrote Mel Watman in Athletics Weekly, “and the 1980 edition because of the boycott this will be Mary’s Olympic debut – despite an international career stretching over 11 years. Something resembling an earthquake will vibrate around the Memorial Coliseum as America’s darling makes her entrance. The massive welcome could intimidate some, but Mary – having endured so much heartbreak in her struggle to reach the very top – will revel in it.”

A true athletics performer who always enjoyed entertaining her audience, the Coliseum was tailor-made to be Slaney’s biggest stage. Trouble is, fate would rule that her Olympics would play out more like a disaster movie than a fairytale adventure.

Almost flying in under the radar, given the media’s obsession with Mary and Zola, were contenders like Puică and Sly. One of the few Eastern Bloc athletes at the Games, the Romanian runner had yet to fulfil her potential on the track after winning world cross country titles in 1982 and 1984. As for Sly, she had shown her rich promise in Helsinki in 1983 and was ready to gravitate to the podium.

Maricica Puica and Wendy Sly (Mark Shearman)

The focus on Zola helped deflect some of the pressure away from Sly. Saying that, the US-based Briton was heading into the Games after a difficult year where she had been hampered with injury and dubbed a “super bitch” in the press following her threat to miss the British Olympic trials.

“I’ve spent three years of my life dedicated to one ambition … to bring home a medal for my country from Los Angeles,” said Sly. “That’s my dream. I have absolutely nothing against Zola. I’m sure she’s a very nice person.”

Showing her inexperience, Zola admitted after the Games that she knew very little about her rivals. On seeing Puică for the first time while warming up for her 3000m heat in LA, she was struck by the 34-year-old’s power and stature, whereas Sly was another relatively unknown quantity.

Not only had Zola and her coach failed to do their homework on their rivals, but they inexplicably went into the Games with no tactical plan. Naturally, they assumed Mary would lead and apart from that were happy to play it by ear, which was a casual approach for a race of such magnitude.

Unlike the final, the heats would pass without incident. Mary won the first in 8:44.38 from Canadian Lynn Williams. “Effortless,” Mary described it, “except for Lynn stepping on my heel four times.”

In the second, Kraus of West Germany clocked a slower 8:57.53 to beat Joan Hansen of the United States with Sly third. Such was the excitement in the stadium, Hansen took off on an impromptu lap of honour and the crowd, unaware of the etiquette, cheered her to the rafters.

Once she had finished, heat three got underway with Puică sprinting past Zola to win in 8:43.32 as the youngster, who was racing barefoot despite previously saying she would wear spikes in her heat to help avoid injury, was content to cruise home in third just behind runner-up Cindy Bremser. “This has to be a tough situation for Zola, running with people who are with her all the way,” said Bremser. “Before, she could just get on a track and run a race. She never had a real kick before and I guess she doesn’t have much of one now because we went right by her and I really wasn’t pushing.”

In fourth place, meanwhile, was one of several little-known South African-born athletes who were competing at the Games with nowhere near the same hullabaloo as Zola. Cornelia Bürki had been born in Humansdorp on the Eastern Cape in 1953 but moved to Switzerland in 1973 and was competing in her second Olympics. A close friend of Zola, she was an outsider for a medal in Los Angeles after reaching the 1500m and 3000m finals at the 1983 Worlds in Helsinki.

Further South African-born athletes at the 1984 Games included Johannesburg-born Israeli middle-distance man Mark Handelsman and Soweto-born Botswanan distance runner Mathews Moshwerateu, although the celebrated Cullinan-born miler Maree missed his chance to compete for the United States due to injury.

By now the predictions were starting to roll in thick and fast. Previewing what he called “the most charismatic clash of the entire Games” in the Daily Mail, Wooldridge suggested Mary had looked “edgier” during the build-up than Zola and added presciently: “If they don’t watch out, Maricica Puică, a comparative old lady at 34, could steal their thunder. Stunningly attractive, with a flying mane of blonde hair that will have instant appeal to the directors of TV commercials, she is a major threat to them both.

“Not too much should be read into heats, but Miss Puică looked in devastating form and came past Miss Budd in the home straight like a grown woman overtaking a child. Zola went out in front, like she has in her last 50 races, only to discover that cunning around here is the better part of valour. If she does that again in the final, the old hands will shadow her for almost exactly 2950 of the 3000 metres and then conduct their own shoot-out in front of her.”

In Sports Illustrated, Kenny Moore wrote: “Once together, the impatient natures of Budd and Decker may create a spectacular race, one that isn’t tactical and jostling and infuriating and won with a late sprint the way the men’s races will certainly be. Decker loves to lead. Budd has never done anything else but lead. If each is equally uncomfortable in the wake of the other, each will pass, and be passed and repass.”

Moore, a fine runner himself who had finished just outside the medals in the 1972 Olympic marathon, continued: “If that happens, it won’t be a race decided by late speed, in which Decker would probably prevail, but by the ability to run when totally exhausted. There hasn’t been an Olympic distance race like that since Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union destroyed Britain’s Gordon Pirie in the Melbourne 10,000m in 1956.

“Making the prospects for this race even more intriguing is the presence of Puică, the world cross-country champion and women’s mile world record-holder (4:17.44). Puică’s ability to close fast will influence Decker to run with a little something in reserve.”

Mary’s coach, Brown, predicted a world record pace. It made little sense to change the front-running strategy that had worked so well for her in Helsinki, but unlike 12 months earlier Brown now advised Mary to allow someone else take a share of the work at the front during the first six laps if they tried to pass her. And if it was Zola, that would be fine, because privately they did not consider the teenager to be a genuine threat.

Crucially, though, they were determined to be in the lead during the final couple of laps where Mary would ideally wind up the pace, hitting top speed in the last 300m. If this plan was predictable, then so was Puică’s. The Bucharest-based athlete had studied videos of her competitors’ past races and decided it was best to hover behind the leaders before striking late into the race.

Like Wooldridge and Moore, Athletics Weekly did not make the mistake of overlooking Puică either when it said in its Olympic preview special: “The advance publicity is concentrating on the clash between Decker and Budd but with Puică in the field – not forgetting Kraus and Sly – it won’t be a two-girl race. All the elements of a classic, world record race are there.”

The magazine then delivered some expert medal predictions. Stan Greenberg, the long-time BBC statistician, went for a one-two-three of Decker to win, Budd in second and Puică third; fellow British statistician Ian Hodge predicted Decker, Puică, Budd in that order; Richard Hymans, editor of the The International Athletics Annual in 1984, plumped for Decker, Puică, Kraus; while Watman went for Decker, Puică, Budd. Most of the Athletics Weekly quartet were known to enjoy a flutter in betting shops or casinos, but no one was bold enough to predict a Puică win or a medal for Sly.

To be fair, nobody foresaw the demolition derby that was about to play out. At 5ft 5in in height and 8st 6lb in weight, Mary was four inches taller and two stone heavier than Zola in the tale of the tape, but athletics is a non-contact sport and even on the most testing of cross country courses footraces are not usually decided by who can stay on their feet.

Mary’s and Zola’s date with destiny was due to take place at 6:40pm local time on the Friday evening. This meant the race would start at 2:40am in the early hours of Saturday morning in the UK and 3:40am in South Africa. In 1984, it was several years before the advent of 24-hour television in the UK and most channels closed down just after midnight. Even breakfast television was in its infancy, but the Olympic Games was an exception and broadcast live through the night for sports fans and night owls.

Heat and smog had been a factor during the Games, with British middle-distance runner Ovett among those to suffer breathing difficulties in the 800m a few days earlier. By early evening, however, the temperature fell to a reasonable 24C with the stadium half-bathed in sunshine and half-covered in shadow. With the women’s high jump already underway, the first track final of the night would be the women’s 100m hurdles, followed by the blue ribbon women’s 3000m race and then the men’s 3000m steeplechase. A busy session would see 4x400m semi-finals, too, plus men’s 1500m semis featuring Coe, Ovett and Cram.

Twelve nervous competitors gathered on the back straight of the track for the first-ever Olympic women’s 3000m final. There were two Britons and three Americans, including Bremser and Hansen, Puică of Romania, Bürki of Switzerland, Possamai of Italy, Kraus of West Germany, Lynn Williams of Canada, Aurora Cunha of Portugal and Dianne Rodger of New Zealand.

Maricica Puica in LA by Mark Shearman

1984 Olympic 3000m (Mark Shearman)

“Mary, Mary!” chanted the partisan crowd of more than 85,000 as the nerves tightened further and the athletes were introduced over the tannoy. Drawn on the inside, Puică was first to be called to the curved starting line. A few moments later, Mary acknowledged her name on the loud speaker by raising her right arm, a gesture that was matched by a wave of applause in the Coliseum.

The double world champion looked cool and resplendent in her red, Kappa-sponsored American kit. Across the top of her chest three large white letters – USA – left no one in any doubt as to which country she represented. Underneath, her race number of 373 had been trimmed with scissors to take off a surplus section featuring her surname, the Olympic rings and a large “LA 84” logo, while some superstitious spectators might have noticed it added up to 13 – an unlucky or lucky number depending on what part of the world you live.

Zola stood tentatively, pacing her feet back and forth on the start line. As expected, she had no shoes on and her race number 151 flapped around loosely over a predominantly white vest that featured a small adidas motif and similar-sized Union flag.

The gun fired and Mary shot straight to the front, immediately shadowed by Puică. Briefly lost for pace, Zola found herself boxed in back in eighth place, but coming into the home straight for the first time after the opening 100m, she swung out into lane two and eased her way into second place on the shoulder of Mary and with Puică tucked inside on the kerb.

After an opening lap of 66.9 and second lap of 68.6, the kilometre mark was reached in a 2:50.43. Mary, Zola, Puică and Sly were the leading quartet as little more than 10 metres covered the tightly-knit field of a dozen runners. On schedule to run a final time of 8:30 – which was just outside Mary’s best but seven seconds quicker than Zola had ever run – Mary then let the pace slow and she passed 1500m in 4:18.6 and the mile in 4:35.9, causing the group behind her to become even more squashed and resulting in the first fall of the race when Hansen tripped on Cunha’s heel and impeded Rodger in the process.

“Mary went off like a bolt of lightning,” Zola later wrote in her autobiography. “Fortunately the pace slowed in the middle of the race and it was the bunching as we all came together that contributed to Mary’s fall. The stage was set for disaster when Mary, who was in the lead with me outside her and Puică behind, slowed down. But the most important figure, one who was virtually ignored in the endless post mortems afterwards, was Wendy, looming up on my outside and starting to box me in.”

Zola continued: “I could feel her bumping my arm as she raced into contention and I had three choices: take the lead, drop back, or run wide. I couldn’t get behind Mary because Puică was there and I couldn’t go outside because Wendy was there, coming closer all the time and crowding me, bumping my arm. The only place left was the front, so I started accelerating to get out of trouble.”

After exactly a mile had been run, Sly began to put pressure on the Mary and Zola, drawing alongside them and almost taking the lead despite running wide in lane two as they hit the bend. This spurred Zola into challenging Mary for the first time and the barefoot runner began to edge ahead of the American. Coming out of the bend and into the home straight with just over three laps to go, Zola was running on the outside of lane one and marginally ahead of Mary on her inside.

Then it happened. A combination of Zola’s wide-arm action, hesitation to surge into a firm lead and Mary’s reluctance to concede pole position was a recipe for disaster. First, there was a small clash when Mary’s knee nudged against Zola’s left leg, which should have acted as a warning. Five strides later, at 1730m into the race, there was a far bigger one as the runners collided with more disastrous consequences.

Struggling to keep her balance, Zola’s pencil-thin left leg flicked out sideways, tangling with Mary’s right leg and the American stumbled as if she had caught her feet on a trip wire, plunging forward violently with a thud on to the grass on the inside of the track. Around the arena, spectators gasped in horror. In the press seats, hundreds of journalists yelled in unison “she’s down!” in a dozen different languages.

“Mary didn’t respond immediately to my change of pace and when I saw she wasn’t coming with me as I picked up the pace I cut inside,” recalled Zola. “There was still a bit of bumping – Wendy was moving in – but I didn’t see Mary’s fall and my conscience is clear.”

Mary Decker and Zola Budd in LA 1984 (Mark Shearman)

When the tumble took place, Mary was in Zola’s blind spot. Straight after the collision, though, Zola glanced sharply to her left to see what had happened, slowing down in the process as Puică and Sly stormed past her to take the lead.

“As far as I could see, the inside lane was open because I was overtaking Mary and I wouldn’t have moved across the track if it hadn’t been clear,” Zola continued. “I almost fell, but I didn’t know if it was Mary, Wendy or Puică who bumped me. With Wendy coming closer it was a case of either going to the front or losing a place and another lap went by before I realised that something was terribly wrong.”

Sometimes runners quickly get up from a fall and get back into the race. Most famously, Lasse Viren of Finland tripped badly just before halfway in the 1972 Olympic 10,000m and rose from the track to claw back the deficit and win the first of his four Olympic golds in a world record. In that race, though, Viren had 13 laps to resurrect his chances, whereas Mary only had three.

Unlike Viren, she also injured herself in the fall. Reaching instinctively out with her arms to cushion the blow, Mary’s hand caught the race number pinned to Zola’s back and ripped it off as she dropped to the ground. Pulling a hip stabilizer muscle, she was physically unable to get up and writhed around in agony, clutching the left side of her body and rolling first on to her back and then on to her right-hand side as she realised her Olympic curse had struck again. “My first thought was, ‘I have to get up’,” she said. “But when I made the slightest move it felt the tear in my hip and it felt like I was tied to the ground and all I could do was watch them run off.”

Immediately, Mary was surrounded by medics who began examining the injured left hip. Not that this mattered now. Mary’s pain was probably more mental than physical as it dawned on her that her chance to win gold had disappeared in a flash. Back in the race, Zola quickly regained the lead ahead of Sly and Puică, passing the 2000m mark in 5:44.09 as the three had broken clear from the rest of the field in the melee.

Then the booing started. Zola had grown accustomed to pockets of the crowd shouting anti-apartheid abuse at her, but this was on an entirely different scale. The whole stadium, it seemed, began to direct its fury toward the barefoot Briton as a cascade of whistles and boos rained down from the stands. An Olympic final had descended into a pantomime, where Zola was the villain and the heroine was lying prone on the in-field.

Writing in one of her Daily Mail columns a few days later, Zola said: “I couldn’t believe it. It was terrible. I wanted to stop. I wanted it all to end. And, in truth, the race for me was really over. Instinctively, I kept on running. When you’ve trained for thousands of miles, you don’t just quit.

“The booing came down like a tidal wave of concentrated hostility,” she added. “It was like being punched in the stomach. More than ever I wanted to stop and for the whole thing to end. What I really wanted at that point was to go somewhere and hide, but there was nowhere to go, so I had to keep running.”

Now running with a gash on her left leg – a bloody reminder of the incident – and tears in her eyes, Zola intuitively realised someone had fallen but claimed she was not completely certain who until she completed a further lap and approached the point where Mary was lying, at this stage on her back, in floods of tears and surrounded by medics and cameramen. Remarkably, as if the race had not produced enough carnage, Kraus was also now out of contention and sitting dejectedly on the in-field.

“As Zola came past the scene of the accident, she glanced down at her crumpled idol,” wrote Wooldridge in the Daily Mail. “She seemed mesmerised by it, as we are mesmerised by the mangled wreckage on a motorway hard shoulder. She looked as stunned as someone who had slashed the Mona Lisa in a moment of madness.”

Amid the chaos, Sly and Puică kept their cool. The crowd’s boos were breaking Zola’s spirit, but her British team-mate and the Romanian were focused on winning medals. “I told myself not to be disturbed by the commotion,” said Sly, “and to think only of winning the gold medal. After the Decker incident I realised a big gap had opened up and this was the chance.”

With a lap-and-a-half to go, Sly again challenged for the lead, in a similar fashion to the way she did before Mary’s fall. Only this time she was more decisive and coming into the home straight with just over a lap to go, she surged past Zola into the lead with Puică following in her slipstream. “Out in the lead I felt inspired,” said Sly. “I was prepared to die for victory.”

Zola instantly began to drop back and within a few seconds was 20m behind as Sly hit the bell in the lead with Puică on her shoulder. Now there were only two athletes capable of winning – Sly and Puică – a scenario no one had predicted.

READ MORE: Wendy Sly on LA 1984

Sensing victory, Puică drew alongside Sly as the two women charged down the back straight and then cut loose with 250m to go, bursting into the lead and establishing an advantage of four or five metres as they hit the last turn.

With 70m to go, as Puică charged past Mary for the last time, the distraught American was still on the floor and accompanied by a growing number of medical helpers and cameramen. Extending her lead over Sly, Puică ran her last lap in 65 seconds to clock 8:35.98 as Sly took a hard-fought silver medal in 8:39.47.

The Canadian, Williams, charged through for a surprise bronze in 8:42.14. Still in third with 200m to go, a disconsolate Zola tailed off to finish a weary seventh in 8:48.80 after virtually jogging her final 400m in 77 seconds. It was almost as if she was postponing the moment when a fresh nightmare of accusation and counter-accusation would begin.

Finally staggering to her feet and helped by medics and officials, Mary began to limp out of the arena, sobbing uncontrollably. Sly stood, resplendent, raising her arms to the crowd as her medal-winning performance sank in. Puică whipped off her yellow spikes and carried them around the track as she enjoyed a lap of honour. Ironically, the race now had a barefoot winner, although not quite the one many had expected.

“I regret what happened,” said Puică. “Zola Budd tried to get to the front. Mary Decker tried to run straight ahead and pushed a bit and tried to remain in front of Budd. She put her hand in front and lost control. I had to avoid her not to run over her. It was a tough competition, but I also thought that I could win.”

To their credit, the Coliseum crowd applauded Puică as she jogged her victory lap. Romanians were popular competitors at the Games due to their country defying the Eastern Bloc boycott and the blonde-haired middle-distance runner was finally tasting track glory after being knocked out of the 1500m heats at the 1976 Olympics, finishing seventh in the 1500m at the 1980 Games and missing Helsinki 1983 due to an injury sustained playing basketball.

“When Mary decided not to run the 1500m in Los Angeles, I knew something was wrong with her,” said Puică. “I watched the strain on her face when she qualified for the 3000m and knew she could not beat me. Then in the final she slowed down after the third lap and I had no doubt who would win.”

Full of emotion, Mary was in no doubt as to whose fault the fall was. “Zola Budd tied to cut in without being basically ahead,” she said. “I think her foot caught me and to avoid pushing her I fell. When I think about it, I should have pushed her. But tomorrow the headlines would have read ‘Decker shoves Zola’.”

Initially, Zola was disqualified after a track official felt she had broken IAAF Rule 141 which read: “Any competitor jostling, running across or obstructing another competitor so as to impede his or her progress shall be liable to disqualification.”

READ MORE: Collision didn’t affect result, says Puica

Andy Bakjian, he commissioner of officials at the Games, issued a formal DQ, but on reviewing the video evidence from six different angles the jury of appeal voted unanimously by a score of 8-0 to reinstate the Briton and made reference to Mary’s “aggressive tactics”.

Memorably, Mary was carried off the track and into a brief post-race press conference by her fiancé Slaney. As the huge discus thrower picked her up, the diminutive athlete looked like a broken doll in his powerful arms. “There is one great thing that can happen in an Olympic final but there are 5000 bad things that can happen,” he would later reflect.

The British strongman stood at her side as she continued to vent her frustration to the media: “There wasn’t anything I could do,” she said. “And when I did fall, I tried to react and tried to get up, but when I tried to twist that’s when I felt the muscle problem in my hip.

“I don’t think there was any question that Zola was in the wrong … she was not in front,” added Mary, who had trained with tightly-packed groups of men in order to get used to scenarios like this. “You have to be a full stride in front and she was cutting in around the turn and she wasn’t anywhere near passing. And I DO hold her responsible for what happened, because I don’t feel I did anything wrong.”

READ MORE: Mary Decker runs again

Just as upset was Zola. Her own race ended in failure and she had suffered the pain of being booed in the closing stages by a huge crowd who blamed her for tripping up an athlete she had always held on a pedestal.

So when she saw Mary after the race in the tunnel that led away from the track, the shy teenager offered her apologies and said “sorry”. Unimpressed, Mary snapped back: “Don’t bother!”

» This is an extract from Collision Course – the Olympic Tragedy of Mary Decker and Zola Budd, which you can buy here

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