The world remembers her as barefoot Zola Budd, but the South African, at 30, now runs in shoes and calls herself Zola Pieterse. That honors her marriage and, she hopes, will change her frightful luck and image. “The politics, the problems and the pressures made my life so difficult for so long,” she says. “I just want to run for myself.”
In the ’84 Los Angeles Games, Zola began her difficulties by choosing to run for Britain, a citizenship of convenience to circumvent the ban on South African athletes. That made nobody happy—including American fans when, in the 3,000 meters, Zola’s heel clipped the favorite, Mary Decker, who lost her footing and sprawled off the track. Zola did bounce back to win the world cross-country championships in ’85 and ’86 but withdrew from consideration for the next Olympiad when she was threatened with banning because she had attended a track meet in South Africa. “I was accused of being a traitor and accused of not doing anything about the problems of my country,” she recalls. “People just don’t realize how impossible that was for me. That doesn’t mean,” she adds, “that I defend apartheid.”
Distraught and on the verge of what she describes as a nervous breakdown, she returned home. And in 1989, she wed businessman Mike Pieterse, now 34, and began to feel a certain emotional stability—which was soon tested. Her father, from whom she had long been estranged, was murdered amid allegations that he was homosexual. Then in ’92, Zola did make the South African Olympic team in the 3,000 only to be eliminated in a qualifying heat in Barcelona. The other frustration of her life was the lingering notoriety over the horror-show brush with Decker, now married to businessman Richard Slaney. The two have competed several times since, and Mary, Zola reports, has always “won quite easily.” They are polite when they meet but not particularly friendly. “She still blames me,” Zola says, “but she has forgiven me.”
Mary, now 37, has come back from 18 to 20 surgeries, to go after her first Olympic medal in Atlanta. Zola, drained by tick-bite fever, failed to qualify for her team but will be in New York State in July, competing in road races and aiming for the marathon in Sydney in 2000. Her base and heart are in Bloemfontein in central South Africa, where she lives with Mike and their 9-month-old daughter, Lisa. After all she has been through, would she encourage Lisa to try track? Her husband, she says, wants the child to take up his game, golf, “but I want her to play the cello.” And not, presumably, barefoot.