On the last Friday of the Olympics, at the crack of the starting gun for the 3,000-meter race, seven of the world’s eight fastest women will burst from the blocks, their spikes digging into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s rubberized track. Among the front-runners, it’s expected, will be American world champion Mary Decker, 26. She’ll be wearing the Nike shoes she’s reportedly paid six figures to endorse. Not far behind or ahead, will probably be Zola Budd, the South Africa-born runner for Britain and junior-world-record holder in the 1,500 meters. She has raced at faster times than Decker but never in head-to-head competition. Budd, too, is being paid by a shoe company. But that doesn’t mean she’ll wear its spikes. The timid, tiny track prodigy of 18 years and 84 pounds simply doesn’t like shoes. She usually wins without them—and that’s just what she plans to do in the Los Angeles final.
That would make Budd the first Olympic track winner to eschew shoes since Ethiopian Abebe Bikila took the marathon barefoot in 1960. Yet her preference for racing with toes to the wind did not discourage some sole-searching over which athletic shoe firm would lure her into a deal. (Nike has Decker.) Adidas and Nike were alleged suitors, though both now deny it.
When the dust settled, little Brooks Shoe Company of Hanover, Pa. had signed Zola for an undisclosed fee. But Brooks is not pressuring her to wear shoes in the final. “Zola runs barefoot with our blessings,” says Will Albers, a Brooks spokesman. “If it’s the difference between a silver medal with shoes and a gold without, we prefer she go barefoot.” But Zola will wear the shoes she sells—when she trains and runs in her Olympic qualifying heats this week. “We don’t want her hurt before the final,” explains coach and mentor Pieter Labuschagne, who knows that a competitor’s spikes could puncture Zola’s hopes. Labuschagne and Zola’s parents—her father a semi-retired printer, and her mother an Afrikaner—emigrated to Great Britain with her last March so that she could become a British citizen and join the British Olympic team. (They left her three siblings, aged 22 to 27, behind in South Africa.) Zola’s departure from South Africa—which is banned from the Olympics because of its controversial apartheid policies—led to squalls of protest in Africa and Britain.
Through all the hoopla, fragile-looking Zola has remained a single-minded competitor, but is she gritty enough to best Decker, the steel-willed veteran? Presuming that both women survive qualifying heats, this promises to be a race of speed over strategy: “Zola and Mary are front-runners,” says coach Labuschagne. “We won’t plan our strategy until after the heat.” Decker has suffered lately from an Achilles tendon injury, and she has nursed it since a defeat by American Ruth Wysocki in the 1,500-meter Olympic Trials. Budd, of course, may risk injury from another runner’s spikes. She seems to believe that’s a risk worth taking. Last week she was confident. “The only pressure I know,” said Zola, “is the pressure I put on myself.”