Budd in bloom

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 next month.

A somewhat unexpected return to the land that 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 newspaper and then prime minister 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?

Censorship had concealed apart-heid’s horrors from her rural back- water, 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 at the time she 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 lone-liness 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, 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 bitter-sweet 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 minibus taxis are called Zola Budds 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 typical day: rise at 4am, prepare school lunches, run 15km, 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 the TV series 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 that 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.

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 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.

Looking back, the one thing she would have done differently is skip the Los Angeles Olympics. “Without LA there would not have been the controversy. I would not have been expected to take a stand [politically].”

In the 3 000m Budd tangled with American favourite Mary Decker, who tumbled out of the race—leaving a wretched Budd to continue to a chorus of boos, 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.”—

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