What Zola Budd did next

You may remember the barefoot 18-year-old from South Africa who cadged a fast-track passport in order to run for Britain at the 1984 Olympics. You may also recall that it all went disastrously wrong. So why is Zola Budd returning to run in the country which so spectacularly vilified her 19 years ago?

The woman sipping tea in a sunlit garden deep in Afrikaner country does and does not resemble the Zola Budd Britain remembers. The hair is rather longer, the legs tanned and muscular for so small a frame, the feet bare, the face of a pixie, with lines around the eyes indicating this is no longer a teenager. The biggest difference is the expression. Photographs from the 1980s show a jaw-clenched grimness as if she is angry, or about to cry, but today she seems genial and relaxed. Red-painted toenails make even the famous feet look cheery. Nineteen years after her first ill-fated visit to Britain, Budd, 36 years old and a married mother of three, is vaulting out of obscurity and back into the public eye to run in the London marathon in April.

A somewhat unexpected return to the land which tormented her. "After everything that happened I suppose some might be surprised that I have the audacity to run again," she smiles. What happened was a blaze of protest that a white South African athlete sidestepped sports sanctions against the apartheid state by obtaining British citizenship to run in the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. An unholy alliance of the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher's government was accused of undermining the sanctions by fast-tracking Budd's passport. Worse, she stirred outrage at her first track meeting by looking blankly at placards saying "Free Nelson Mandela". Who, she asked, was this Nelson Mandela? South Africa's Soviet-style censorship had concealed apartheid's horrors from her rural backwater, she said then, and still does.

"I didn't know anything, in those days we had no CNN or Sky News." When swiftly enlightened in Britain she admits feeling "ashamed" about South Africa but refused to condemn white minority rule on the grounds that she was a sportswoman, not a politician.

Dashing off to shoo two wandering geese into a pen, she returns and cites an additional reason for not speaking out all those years ago: "My family was still in South Africa and I was afraid they would not allow me back in. I knew I wanted to go home at some point. I kept quiet, I was an easy scapegoat."

The teenage waif became a symbol of sanctions-busting, of the weasel ways in which western governments eroded the campaign to isolate Pretoria. Demonstrations dogged her races: there was a sit-down protest at Crystal Palace, she was literally chased off the English cross-country championships at Birkenhead, and there was a television blackout in Edinburgh because the council would not remove anti-apartheid banners. Several countries boycotted the Commonwealth games as Budd became a celebrity outcast, the loneliness of the long distance runner personified.

"From 1984 to 1988 was really horrible. It was quite traumatic, I was terrified of the protesters, physically scared." She returned home in 1988 and a year later, on the eve of Mandela's release and the crumbling of racist rule, issued a statement condemning apartheid. Sanctions were lifted and Budd wore South African colours in international competitions.

Emerging from the landscape of parched veld in Bloemfontein to return to London for April's marathon will be a bittersweet trip. "I had such a bad time there that it's like going back to put it all behind me." Budd is bemused but not, you sense, displeased at the renewed media attention, despite the pain it caused before. A vocabulary of healing peppers her conversation and it turns out she has completed a degree and is studying to take honours in psychology (loves Jung, loathes Freud), with a view to treating children - but not athletes.

"Sports people are only interested in running faster and better, they destroy themselves to win a gold medal." Her own childhood was troubled. An older sister who was a mother-figure died when Budd was 11, pushing her deeper into the solace of running where her mind would clear. Her parents broke up, with her (English) father leaving home and ending up being killed by his gay lover.

"We were an extremely dysfunctional family, to put it mildly." Budd reckons marriage and children - Lisa, seven, and four-year-old twins Mikey and Azelle - are the best things she has done, the twins taking turns to nuzzle in her arms. Away from running, Budd prefers to use her married name, Pieterse. "My life is more happy and stable now than it has ever been. I'm a survivor." Trophies and images from her career will remain hidden from the children until they are older because she wants them to regard her as a normal mum, though they increasingly wonder why strangers recognise her. Discovering that township taxis are nicknamed Zola Budd for their speed could blow her cover. "I hope they don't become runners. They have to find their own niche in life, play cricket or become a cellist or whatever." Toys litter the floor and childish drawings adorn the walls. Six dogs, six cats, rabbits and white rats make up a menagerie of slobbering, purring affection, punctuated by squawks from the geese as they flee the Rottweiler. A rural idyll in a Boer heartland.

A typical day: rise at 4am, prepare school lunches, run 10 miles, prepare breakfast, drive kids to school, nap for an hour, housework, study, supper, bed. The jeers and taunts under the grey British skies are a distant echo. A fan of Mr Bean and Fawlty Towers, Budd considers British people in general to be decent and nice if somewhat distant, but what does she think of those who flung themselves into her path, waved placards, chanted? A long pause. "I don't really have any feelings for them. I don't feel bitter. I forgive them. You have to, otherwise you can't have your own life." Pressed on the issue, sarcasm bubbles. "If I met them today I would say well done, you helped traumatise a girl of 18 and destroy her personal life."

Politics and sport should not mix. Budd sympathises with England's cricketers: neither she nor they should have been dragged into international relations. Yet, and here is the contradiction which blighted everything, in the same breath she admits sports sanctions, by denying ordinary white South Africans a pleasure and sense of normality, accelerated the demise of a system she acknowledges was immoral, and that those who protested against her contributed to its defeat.

So were the protests not justified? "There were just too many people who got hurt in the process. You have to be careful whom you destroy." It strained her parents' marriage and frustrated a generation of black South African runners - a generation she describes as "brilliant, better than the Kenyans". If those protesters really cared about her country why are they now silent over the South African government's controversial refusal to widely distribute potentially life-saving drugs to the estimated 4.7 million HIV-positive South Africans? "It's hypocritical. Aids is doing more harm than apartheid ever did but protesting about Aids is not glamorous."

When she describes how several people close to her are dying from the disease it is the only time in the interview she seems angry. Of the new South Africa she seems ambivalent. Her children mix with black classmates and are respectful towards black adults, her running partner is a 17-year-old black boy, a welcome erosion of racial barriers, but she is no fan of the ruling African National Congress and complains that her generation of whites, especially the teenagers given guns to wage war in Angola and the townships, are on the wrong end of affirmative action. "White males are the ones being discriminated against now so there is bitterness in my generation."

She implies she represents only herself, not the rainbow nation, when competing. "I have always run for myself. It annoys people when I say it; running is something personal for me." That unvarnished refrain has fuelled accusations of selfishness and, typically, no amount of media mauling will persuade her to gloss. Looking back, the one thing she would have done differently is skip the LA Olympics and instead compete in the junior cross-country championships. "Without LA there would not have been the controversy. I would not have been expected to take a stand (politically)."

It was the then editor of the Daily Mail, Sir David English, who brought Budd to the UK and helped arrange her passport in return for a diary column from the Olympic village. "The Daily Mail put a lot of pressure on me because they wanted their pound of flesh."

In the event, the British Olympic Association stopped the column as a breach of amateur rules. The nadir came in the 3,000m final when, just after half way, she collided with the American favourite, Mary Decker, who tumbled out of the race, leaving a wretched Budd to continue to a chorus of boos and finish seventh, forever branded Decker's wrecker. They met again a few years ago at a race in Australia and managed some chit-chat. "She still blames me but has forgiven me. We don't keep in touch, she's not an easy woman to talk to."

Budd, who went on to win the world cross-country title in 1985 and 1986 and set a world record for 5,000m, stopped competing in 1996 to have children but continued training. Pounding the same veld of her childhood runs was like coming full circle. Now the children are old enough for school she wants to compete for a few final years. She ran a 10km road race in London last summer to rehearse for the marathon but has no illusions about winning. Aiming for a time of 2 hours 40 minutes, she is likely to be at least 20 minutes behind the probable winner.

"Paula (Radcliffe) will be showered and changed and on her way home by the time I cross the finishing line." Those expecting a barefooted performance and a glimpse of the painted toe-nails may be disappointed when Budd turns up in Nike trainers, a concession to injury and age. The irony is unintended: "When you're young you can get away with anything."


Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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