Softly-spoken and slight of frame, both now and back in her running pomp, it is difficult to imagine Zola Budd-Pieterse attracting such intensely ferocious opprobrium that the televisual censors deemed her unsuitable for family viewing.
Rewind, however, to the summer of 1985 and the august surroundings of Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium. Born in South Africa but granted UK citizenship against the backdrop of escalating protests by the anti-apartheid movement, the then-teenager was well accustomed to the firestorm ignited by a repatriation accelerated by a government urged on by those who pulled strings.
Racing home favourite Yvonne Murray over a mile at the Grand Prix meeting, their private duel came mightily close to disaster when a protestor strung himself across the track and forced both to leap into evasive action. ITV – broadcasting the race – abruptly cut the feed.
“It was scary stuff,” she recounts. “Today there would be security people on the track but then, there weren’t that many. There were two guys there. The police got one but the other lay flat on the inside, off the rail. And Yvonne and I had to go around him. It was a mile but I almost did the steeple.”
It has taken until now, on the eve of her 51st birthday, for the mother of three to gamely venture back to Scotland but she will be assured of a clearer path when hitting the roads tomorrow for the inaugural Stirling Scottish Marathon. Training, these days, is a sideline, with coaching her primary athletic association at her present home on the coast of South Carolina.
Twice a world cross-country champion, and a multiple world record-setter, the former Miss Budd remains an icon of her era, a myth heightened by grainy memories of quicksilver bare feet and the controversy that threatened to overwhelm her amid the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles when she was branded the villain in an inopportune clash of legs that led to American sweetheart Mary Decker tumbling over and out of a 3,000 metres final she had been expected to win.
“If I had just been able to be a normal athlete and not the political scapegoat I was made out to be, it would have been so much easier,” she reflects.
“I’d have liked to have been seen as a runner rather than an easy target. I see sport as that sacred area where people can come together. At that time, to blame me for everything that was wrong in South Africa, it was very unfair.”
It obscured her immense gifts, with Budd long ago hinting she had so feared the potential backlash that she backed off pursuing a medal following Decker’s demise. Coming from a sheltered upbringing in Bloemfontein, it was all too much, far too soon, with little protection afforded.
“I remember the circus,” recalls former world champion Liz McColgan-Nuttall, who will also turn back the clock with a 26-mile outing in Stirling. “It was child abuse, in a way. She was 17, she didn’t know anybody. All of sudden, she is in a foreign country and people were not happy she was here. It was an awful lot for anybody to deal with, not just a 17-year-old.”
So precocious was Budd that, even though she tired of the noise and returned to her homeland in 1988, several British records had already been plundered. Two generations on and one still stands, a mile mark of 4:17.57, but it is due to come under a targeted assault from Laura Muir at July’s Diamond League meet in London.
“About time,” the long-time holder smiles. “After 30 years, I think it’s time to take it. And I’d be glad if it were her. Records are made to be broken. They’re there to motivate people.”
With minimal training, Budd-Pieterse will set no targets in Stirling. If evenings like the one in Edinburgh soured her fervour for athletics, the relationship has been repaired. “Now I’m older, I get back that feeling of running as a child, that freedom,” she declares.