Twenty-five years after her collision with Zola Budd left her sprawling on the Los Angeles Olympics track, Mary Slaney still wonders if the race that came to define her could have had a different outcome.
“All I know is that I ran the race unlike any other time I raced,” the US’ greatest middle-distance runner told reporters on a recent sunny morning.
Typically a front-runner, Slaney — then Mary Decker — said she followed her coach’s advice when she let others lead a portion of the 3,000m final many believed would bring her the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold medal.
“And that’s what I did,” said the 50-year-old Slaney, reflecting on the moments before she became entangled with the barefoot-running Budd and tumbled into the infield, injured, while the race continued without her.
Her coach, Dick Brown, told a news conference the next day that he and Decker, who was already world champion, had planned to let the South African-born, British-vested Budd lead, if she wanted, until the final lap. Their concern, he said, was not Budd, but eventual winner Maricica Puica of Romania.
“I am thinking the Olympics are so important, maybe I should listen to the coach,” said Slaney, who paced early portions of the race.
Although she no longer replays the Aug. 10 race in her head, she admitted: “If I had to go back and say: ‘Oh, are there any regrets?’ ... Well, the big regret is that I didn’t run the way I normally would have run.”
At the time, Slaney blamed Budd’s inexperience for the collision, even though Olympic officials cleared the teenager of fault.
Slaney, who had undergone several operations because of problems with her legs, had been denied the chance to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the US-led boycott.
Heavily criticized in 1984 for her reaction towards Budd, Slaney still feels the pain of what happened.
“How is someone in their early 20s that’s been training and trying to get to the Olympics since they were 10, and it happens to be on US soil ...” she began before trailing off with: “And oh, my God.”
She said, though, that her reaction might have been different if she had been older at the time.
“You can’t change it,” said Slaney, who turns 51 on Aug. 4. “You don’t know if it would be any different if it happened now ... [but] I think as you get older, you are able to control things a little more with yourself.”
She and Budd participated in several events over the years that followed, but “there is really not a relationship,” the American said.
“It’s not like I knew her before or really had the opportunity to know her after. It’s just history,” she said. “It’s a part of the sport, part of what happened.”
The two exchanged letters for a year.
“We both wished people would just leave it alone and let us get on with running,” Slaney said. “But that was not going to happen.”
After all, as Slaney asked rhetorically: “How many Americans do you think remember the American that should have won that was lying on the track?”
The moment fixed Slaney’s image in the eyes of the US public. It also inspired her.
“In 1985 I just wanted every single time that I stepped on the track to prove that I was the best,” Slaney said.
She had done so at the 1983 world championships, boldly winning both the women’s 1,500m and 3,000m, and in 1985 she conquered the world again.