Decker-Budd debate continues

The Olympics have ended, but discussions about the Great Entanglement go on. Even the magic of instant replay hasn't cleared up the most talked-about incident of the XXIII Games - the collision of US star Mary Decker and Zola Budd in the women's 3,000 meter race.

The two had been the focus of tremendous pre-race publicity - Decker as world champion, Budd as the barefooted, 18-year-old who left South Africa to compete in the Olympics for Great Britain.

By now the footage of the infamous faux pas is familiar, the conclusions to be drawn from it quite uncertain.

Trying to hold her ground on the inside just behind Budd, the American favorite stumbled on Zola's foot midway through the race and crumpled to the infield, her hip injured and her dreams of Olympic gold extinguished.

Budd, who had just taken the lead from Decker and then appeared to crowd Mary , was immediately cast in the villain's role. Boos cascaded upon her, but she kept going, finishing a teary seventh.

In a tunnel afterwards, Budd tried to talk to her running idol, only to have the heartbroken Decker say ''Don't bother.'' Later at a press conference Mary blamed Budd for moving in too quickly, an opinion shared by the race umpire, who disqualified the frail, 84-pound teen-ager.

An appeals jury eventually reinstated Budd, but didn't really settle the debate summarized in this headline from the Los Angeles Herald: ''Is Zola Guilty?''

That one will be hashed up for years, because there's a lot of subjective judgment involved. ''Both runners could have done things to avoid the contact; both are guilty,'' said TV commentator Marty Liquori, backing off from his original indictment of Budd alone.

Decker claimed Budd needed to be a full stride in front before cutting in, but that's a rule of thumb, not an actual rule.

What the International Amateur Athletics Federation Handbook says is: ''Any competitor jostling, running across or obstructing another competitor so as to impede his progress shall be liable to disqualification.'' That, of course, leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

In reviewing videotapes the appeals panel apparently felt too much fell into a gray area to disqualify Budd. Sure, Zola was squeezing Decker, but Mary wasn't backing off. The result was some minor contact that threw Zola's stride off and momentarily caused her to run splay-legged. Both runners probably should have viewed these developments as an early warning device, but didn't.

Looking back, Decker says she probably should have given Zola a light push to establish her presence. That she didn't, she said, was partly to avoid another potential headline that might have read, ''Decker Shoves Zola.'' Her intent, however, would have been solely to communicate her whereabouts.

''Mary was perfectly content not to pass then,'' said Dick Brown, her coach with Athletics West. ''We had sat down before the race and talked strategy. We had decided that if Zola took the lead any time before lap 6 (of 7) to let her.''

Despite all the Budd-Decker publicity, Brown said, Zola wasn't considered a serious threat by those in the know. The one they felt Mary had to watch was Romania's Marcica Puica, who had the year's best 3,000 time, and who in fact went on to win this first-ever Olympic 3,000. Second place, interestingly, went to Britain's Wendy Sly, who had spoken against putting Budd on the national team.

Inexperience on the part of both runners may have been a factor in their entanglement. This was Budd's first major international meet, and while Decker has been running for years, she is accustomed to being well out in front. Brown points out, however, that Mary runs boxed in by male runners frequently in practice. And at last year's world championships, where she won both the 1500 and 3000, she said she welcomed the rough tactics of the Russians because she wanted ''to get used to dealing with things like that.''

As for whether the uninitiated Budd belonged in the Olympics, Brown said she did. She qualified for the final, after all, and last January she ran the fastest women's 5,000 ever - nearly seven full seconds faster than Decker's 1982 record.

After missing the Olympics in 1976 through injury and 1980 due to the boycott , Decker desperately wanted to win the gold medal. Miler Jim Ryun had similarly seen his dream go up in smoke, when he and another runner collided in the qualifying rounds of the 1972 Olympics.

That was a big story then, and this one will be relived many times too. Both athletes must move on, however, and to that end their coaches, Brown and Pieter Labuschagne, met over the weekend.

''Mary doesn't even know Zola, so a reconciliation is really not the right word,'' Brown said. ''Our biggest concern for both athletes is just that they leave L.A. feeling as good as they can.''

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