As someone who has written one of three books on Emil Zátopek to have been published in the UK in the last four months, I can only sympathise with Jason Henderson and Kyle Keiderling, who have also produced books on the same subject, in their case the clash of Mary Decker and Zola Budd in the Olympic 3000 metres in Los Angeles 1984. Compounding the coincidence is their publishers’ use of the same cover picture (albeit Henderson’s is in colour)*, and similar titles – Collision Course for Henderson, and Olympic Collision for Keiderling.
They also have the arguable legacy of hitting the market – Henderson right now, Keiderling on November 1 – in the wake of The Fall, a superlative documentary film on the subject. The film (in which Keiderling appears) features Decker and Budd as principal sources, which they are conspicuously not (with minor caveats) in either book. On the other hand, the film serves as excellent publicity for the books. Incidentally, the poster for The Fall uses the same image as the books, which means that Getty Images has made a few bob out of that print.
Any historical account, even for an event as (relatively) recent as the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, will lean to a greater or lesser degree on testimony from the time. I am no fan of the ‘cuttings job’ ie articles cut out of journals and pasted into ledgers, formerly in print libraries, increasingly nowadays in digital archives. Recourse to such sources runs the considerable risk of the account falling as flat as Decker did in the Los Angeles Coliseum; precisely because it lacks the immediacy of the event itself or the testimony of the principal witnesses, which can bring such an account to life, even three decades after the event.
Neither volume manages to avoid this pitfall, something which becomes abundantly clear when Keiderling finally quotes Budd directly from one of his four interviews with her, and Henderson does the same from a lengthy interview with Decker late last year. Personally, I would have highlighted these exchanges much earlier in their respective books, and can only admonish the editors of both volumes for not recognising this and demanding that it be amended.
For younger readers, the books and film record how the long–established Decker (double world champ in 1983), who had been a child track star herself is suddenly confronted with a wunderkind from South Africa, who had broken Decker’s teenage records, and whose family background was manipulated in order to secure her a British passport in record time, so that she could avoid the apartheid boycott, and compete in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. With both women inveterate front-runners, it was almost inevitable that they should clash while contesting the lead. Decker crashed to the Coliseum turf, and Budd, roundly booed by the partisan crowd drifted back to finish well outside the medals.
Decker immediately blamed Budd, both at a hastily and ill-advised press conference immediately afterwards, and on national television the following day, by which time it was becoming clear that Decker had been as much if not more to blame for the clash. The public saw a display of mean-spiritedness by Decker that had formerly only been evident to rivals and close athletics watchers.
On the premise that one picture is worth a thousand words, archive footage of ‘Little’ Mary Decker in pigtails and teeth braces in The Fall, and of Zola Budd handing out prayer books at a Bloemfontein church service is as good to the producers of the documentary as the gold medal that neither women won in Los Angeles. Those are just two, albeit the best, of several sequences in The Fall which far outstrip anything in either book; though both volumes do an excellent job of tracing the trajectories of both athletes from Genesis to Fall and beyond. Although they made up their differences the following year, and raced several times with Decker winning all the encounters, there is an intriguing reunion of the pair in the LA Coliseum, to conclude the film.
As a runner himself and long-time editor of the UK magazine Athletics Weekly, Henderson has the considerable advantage of knowing exactly what he is writing about, whereas the lack of insight into the sport for Keiderling is all too obvious too often. It may not be apparent to the general reader but, despite having regular access to Budd, the latter’s book suffers enormously from this lack of athletics awareness, and there are many elementary errors (names, events, places) which could have been avoided by being proof-read by any track and field expert.
As will be clear to anyone who has seen The Fall, Keiderling (and others) paints Decker as a hugely talented but consummate bitch; but whereas the others, mostly her rivals had the advantage of knowing Decker well, Keiderling’s animus seems to spring from the fact that Decker refused to talk to him for his book. Where Keiderling’s account does have an advantage though is in its 40 pages of notes and references, with two pages of bibliography, while inexplicably Henderson’s book has no indexing whatsoever.
The film must have been painful watching for Decker, who is clearly the villain of the piece, but fair-play to her for agreeing to take part, and after a long career punctuated by horrendous injuries, this tempestuous talent seems to have found some sort of peace with husband, former discus thrower Richard Slaney, in the beautiful pastoral surroundings of their home in Oregon. And Budd, who became a world champion herself – winning two world cross titles – but whose career never reached the heights promised by her scintillating teenage performances, she remains in athletics as a coach in her new family home, also in the USA, but on the east coast.
No danger of bumping into each other there then!
* An editor (G Hill of T&FN, no less, writes to point out, correctly, that the photos are NOT the same!
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