Zola Budd's international running career at a critical crossroads

For Zola Budd, the South African-born British runner, this weekend will be make or break. Her athletic future is to be determined by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, whose committee meets in London on Friday. At issue is whether Budd broke an international ban on sporting contact with South Africa. She is alleged to have ``taken part'' in two events in her native land, in June last year and on New Year's Day, charges she angrily denies.

If found guilty, she faces lifelong exclusion from sanctioned meets worldwide. She is already under suspension pending the IAAF's final ruling, a state of affairs brought about by African threats to boycott last month's world cross-country championships in Auckland, New Zealand, had she been allowed to run.

Budd, the world champion on the last two occasions she contested the event, withdrew when it became clear the IAAF was about to suspend her. It did so anyway, to her understandable distress.

``I am being found guilty until proved innocent of something I did not do,'' she complained. ``Is that justice?''

The weekend of the Auckland race, she flew instead to New York for a road race, only to learn she had been suspended from all internationally approved events.

Even if she is exonerated this weekend, the month's layoff has cost Budd dearly. Preparations for the Olympics have been set back, and potential financial opportunities also have been lost.

``Had she won the world cross-country title again,'' her British coach and adviser John Bryant points out, ``she stood to earn large sums in new contracts. Because of her enforced absence from world athletics for a year or more due to injury, she needed this win to restore her credibility as a top athlete. She does not even have a shoe contract at the moment.''

The latter is ironic, as Budd has only just been persuaded to abandon her barefoot running style in favor of shoes. Her medical advisers told her that running barefoot had caused a physical strain.

It was during her long inactivity that her latest problems began. She had already had more trials and tribulations than most athletes endure in a lifetime. After all, she had arrived in Britain, a pitifully shy 17-year-old whose command of English was minimal, and thrust into the forefront of political controversy.

Even her fellow athletes criticized the British government for granting her a passport within days of arrival, pointing out that many other would-be citizens had to wait months or years. Her grandparents were British on her father's side.

Then she suffered the trauma of the breakup of her parents' marriage, largely due to her mother's unhappiness at her father's decision to take Zola abroad.

Next came the clash with Mary Decker at the 1984 Olympics, in which Decker tripped on Budd's leg and was unable to finish the race. The bitter recriminations of her childhood heroine (a picture of Decker hung on Zola's wall for years) were the last straw. She returned to South Africa, vowing never to leave again. She was about to end her overseas career by running in a track event in Stellenbosch when she was dissuaded at the last moment - ironically with an appeal to her South African patriotism. ``I told her hundreds of her fellow South African athletes would have given their eye teeth for the chance to run internationally,'' recalls Jannie Momberg, a rich farmer with whose family Budd was staying. ``How, I asked her, could she throw it away? She owed it to her fellow-athletes to make the most of it.''

Zola took the advice and later returned to Britain. She broke the 5,000- and 10,000-meter world records, won a European Cup gold medal, and captured two world cross-country titles. But her long absences in her native land continued, much to the annoyance of the British athletic authorities. They wanted her to show she had cut the strings to her motherland. Yet she severed these only gradually, and with great reluctance.

Though she separated from her South African coach, she adopted a South African adviser. Though she bought a house in southern England, she seldom seemed to live in it. And when she did, she seemed to keep company mainly with other South African or ex-South African friends.

Her injury came as a severe blow - she feared her career was over. There was huge pressure on her to involve herself in South African athletics. Though she never actually ran in any events, she did go to watch at least two.

Her accusers say she accepted prizes at one of them, though she says she merely accepted roses from an admirer. And at another she admits training close to the track, and doing a few laps alongside it, but denies this means she ``took part'' in the race, as the IAAF rule forbids.

``If I am to be banned for that,'' she says, ``then they may as well ban me for watching a film of a track event.''

Budd had appealed for a public hearing, but the IAAF has only allowed her and her adviser to present their case and answer questions. Bryant fears the IAAF may be less interested in ascertaining the truth than in pursuing a ``witch hunt.'' It has not escaped his attention that the African bloc recently gained far greater influence in the IAAF with the adoption of a one-country-one-vote system.

Much depends on whether the IAAF interprets its own rules literally, or loosely. ``Each thing that Budd has done may be small,'' a senior IAAF official in Rome told the Monitor. ``But when you put them all together they clearly show she has acted like a South African when she has gone there. We don't mind her visiting her family, but she has done a lot more than that.''

Even Bryant admits Budd has done several ``stupid and silly things.'' He adds: ``In the past she may have been badly advised. But now she is determined to prove she is fully British. She is to take a course in catering management at a local university this September onward. She is training with British athletes. She's developing a circle of British friends.''

Budd now avers she is ``proud to be British.'' Whether the IAAF - under African pressure - will accept that remains to be seen. The Supreme Council for Sport in Africa maintains she has been abusing her British nationality as a ``passport of convenience.'' They even suggest they may boycott the Seoul Olympic Games if she is allowed to run.

African lobbyists are suggesting that a further two-year suspension until she proves she has severed her South African connections is a suitable compromise.

But the IAAF may decide that the sacrifice of one athlete is a small price to pay to ensure the removal of another stumbling block in the way of the Seoul Olympics.

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