London — It is being billed as the ``Olympic rematch.'' Tomorrow, watched by a battery of television cameras, gangly, barefoot Zola Budd, wearing a British jersey, will take on the stronger-looking American champion Mary Slaney in a 3,000 meter race here. The former Mary Decker married British discus thrower Richard Slaney earlier this year.
Not since Mrs. Slaney tripped over Miss Budd's legs and went sprawling on the ground at last year's Los Angeles Olympics have the two champions competed against each other.
Such is the interest in the long-awaited duel that the 3,000 meter race at Crystal Palace, London, has been shifted from Friday to Saturday night to accommodate American television.
Nobody is proclaiming this the race of world champions, since Maricica Puica, the Olympic champion from Romania declined to participate in the race, one of several on the European track circuit.
But there still is insatiable curiosity as to who might have won the 3,000 meter race at the Los Angeles Olympics had Budd and Slaney not collided.
That famous collision became one of the most frequently replayed events in sporting history. Although Budd was booed by the crowd for apparently tripping up Slaney, she was officially exonerated.
Now for the first time since that event Budd is reported to have admitted that the fault, although not deliberate, was hers.
In an interview with Seattle television station KING, the controversial South African-born runner says she cut too close, causing Mrs. Slaney to fall.
``We came around the bend and I was running next to her and Wendy Sly began to run close to me and I had to go forward. Otherwise she would have run into me and would have blocked me. And I think that's what made me to cut in shorter than what is the right way.
``And because everybody was boxed in at that stage . . . and Wendy Sly tried to pass, as she did, she made me to go closer to Mary. I think that's why I had to cut short.''
Even before that incident, Zola Budd was knee deep in controversy. Much of it was explained by her country of origin: South Africa.
Its apartheid (racial segregation) policies have caused South Africa to become a pariah among sporting nations. Since 1960, South Africa has been banned from competing in the Olympics and from most major sporting events. The New Zealand rugby team was just prohibited from touring South Africa by New Zealand court order.
The only way individual South Africans can circumvent the ban is to assume the citizenship of another country. Kevin Curren, the South African tennis ace who lost in the Wimbledon final to West German, Boris Becker, opted for American citizenship.
With an English grandfather, Budd took British citizenship.
Her decision to become a British citizen, while still spending considerable time in South Africa, has rankled many people, not least British athletic authorities.
Anti-apartheid demonstrators who dog Budd's footsteps say her British nationality is merely a flag of convenience.
It was only after her unfortunate collision with Slaney, which seemed to make Budd reconsider whether she wanted a career in international sports, that there was a groundswell of sympathy in Britain for her.
Since her comeback, enthusiastic cries of ``Zola, Zola, Zola'' have been heard to echo across athletic stadiums.
But if this young runner is to succeed in a head-to-head race with Slaney this Saturday, she will have to upgrade her recent performances. Her events recently have been disappointing.
In the 5,000 meter world championships in Helsinki on July 5 she took the lead, as she likes to do, and maintained it until the last lap. But down the home stretch she was overtaken by Olympic champion, Puica and fell far behind the frontrunners.
Mary Slaney meanwhile has been running like a dream, and purring to the media whom she had cold-shouldered ever since the Olympic fiasco.
Many fans think that in present form, Slaney will run away with the title.
Win or lose, Budd knows she will always have to contend with international politics.
Next year's Commonwealth Games are to be held in Scotland. She has been told her participation there is not welcome because it could arouse protests from black-African and Asian nations and jeopardize the games.