Zola Budd had the chance to be named the best in the world. All she had to do was outrun the American Mary Decker. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple — as Zola found to her cost. What happened next became one of the greatest scandals in Olympic history. And even years later, we’re still finding out the truth of what really went down.
The historic moment happened so quickly. During the women’s 3,000-meter final, Mary went tumbling to the grass as Zola went speeding past her. Was there a push? A shove? The Los Angeles crowd wasn’t sure. All they saw was their representative down for the count. Zola had to fight to have her side heard.
Would it spell the end of Zola’s career? She’d previously had a well-earned reputation as a talented runner. She wasn’t naturally athletic, either. In fact, she only started running because her older sister Jenny did. But wherever Zola went, she stood out.
What set Zola apart? Well, there was the curious detail that she never wore shoes! As a kid, she ran barefoot around Bloemfontein, her South African hometown, with her sister. And once Zola showed some skill at running, she found a coach. Jenny, meanwhile, went into nursing. She worked the night shift, only seeing Zola as she left for school in the morning.
And a major loss may have spurred Zola on — whatever the cost. In 1980 Jenny was being treated for melanoma in the hospital, yet Zola wasn’t allowed to visit her sister. She was just 14, and so her family tried to keep the seriousness of the situation away from her. Naturally, it came as a shock for Zola when Jenny ultimately lost her battle.
Zola put her grief into running, getting up at 4:45 a.m. every day to exercise. Then, after school, she’d run for another two hours. And her dedication made a difference: Zola earned first place in a 4K she’d previously lost. Momentum was building.
Zola kept winning. Eventually, she ran 5,000 meters in 15:01.83 — which set a new women’s record. “That’s when I realized ‘Hey, I’m not too bad,’” Zola said. It’s also when she started gaining international attention from the press.
“If the results were to be believed,” John Bryant from the Daily Mail wrote, “there was a teenage girl, running without shoes, at altitude, up against domestic opposition, who was threatening to break world records.” It sounded impossible. Though Zola’s record wasn’t official — South Africa was banned from competing due to its racist apartheid policy — she’d piqued enough interest.
The Daily Mail took an interest in Zola, and in exchange for the rights to her life story, they helped the talented athlete get a British passport. With this crucial document, she’d have the chance to compete on the biggest international stage of them all: the Olympic Games.
But while Zola was excited to compete, some people protested her running for England. She was a white South African, and so she represented the privileged, racist part of her home country. Many thought she didn’t deserve to run against the other athletes.
“Until I got to London in 1984, I never knew Nelson Mandela existed,” Zola said to a reporter in 2002. “I was brought up ignorant of what was going on. All I knew was what the white side expressed in South African newspapers — that if we had no apartheid, our whole economy would collapse. Only much later did I realize I’d been lied to by the state.”
Regardless of the protests, Zola carried on. She ran a 3,000-meter event in 9:02.06 and qualified for the Games. Soon, she would compete with the most talented female runners in the world. And, yes, they included Mary Decker.
Mary first shot to fame when, at just 14, she ran against the Soviets in Minsk. And she spent the next decade setting international records at every distance, from 800 to 10,000 meters. Reporters were eager to set “Little Mary Decker” against the controversial Zola. The South African had other concerns, though.
Zola was worried about world champion Maricica Puică — as well as adjusting to this new, Olympian life. “Emotionally, I was upset. Away from home, missed my family, by myself… It wasn’t the greatest time of my life, to be honest,” Zola later said. “I thought, ‘Just get in this Olympics and get it over with.’”
The 3,000-meter final went on as planned. Mary quickly set the pace, and Maricica, Zola, and a third runner, Wendy Sly, were in pursuit. Then, at the 1,600-meter mark, Zola arced away from Mary to move into first. Mary bumped into Zola’s left foot with her right thigh.
Zola carried on running until Mary accidentally clipped her calf with her right sneaker. The pair touched again, and Mary fell, ripping off Zola’s number. Zola kept her balance and continued the race. It wasn’t until her next lap that she realized Mary was injured. The rest of the runners passed Zola, who ultimately finished in seventh place.
Meanwhile, the audience booed. In the official rules, the runner doing the passing is responsible for avoiding contact. It seemed, then, that the crowd thought Zola was too aggressive in passing Mary. Was that fair? Another runner, Cornelia Bürki, witnessed the incident and explained what she had seen.
“I saw what happened,” Burki said. “I saw Mary pushed Zola from the back. Zola overtook Mary, and Mary didn’t want to give that position in front. Mary ran into Zola from the back. As she fell down, she pushed Zola.” Burki also claimed that Zola attempted to talk to Mary after the race.
“Mary was sitting there crying. Zola was walking in front of me, apologizing. Mary was screaming at her. I’ll never forget that,” Burki said. “Zola being such a shy person, her shoulders dropped. It could have happened in any race, and it wasn’t Zola’s fault, but the blame was on her. For any young girl to cope with that, that was very difficult.”
Mary blamed Zola in a press conference, and the young South African received death threats as a result. Eventually, Mary wrote Zola an apologetic letter for her emotional post-race response, but she continued to speak against her in public. It seemed as if there would always be bad blood — until the two had a chance to reconnect years later.
“We had time to spend together and an opportunity to talk about things other than running and get to know each other,” Zola said. “One of the reasons both of us decided to do this is that it hopefully will give us closure.”
Even Mary changed her tune. “Some people think [Zola] tripped me deliberately,” she said. “I happen to know that wasn’t the case at all. The reason I fell is because I am and was very inexperienced in running in a pack.”
Now, Zola is a a full-time assistant track and field coach at Coastal Carolina University. She’s a long way away from her brief and well-remembered stint at the Olympics. And perhaps she’s happier than she was back then. “I never strived to be the best in the world,” Zola said. “I just ran every day. I just ran.”
Zola’s and Mary’s truce managed to erase the taste of bad sportsmanship in many fans’ mouths. When you have a chance to be crowned the best in the world, though, fair play can go by the wayside. It’s rare to hear of athletes who choose friendship over victory — especially at a very poignant time in history.
In the 1930s, a host of seismic events led to war. But despite the global troubles bubbling under the surface, the 1936 Summer Olympics still went ahead. It produced some extraordinary moments in sporting history — the famous being the astounding performance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens.
Owens was an astonishing track-and-field athlete; he was also the antithesis of everything Nazi ideology stood for. He won an astonishing four gold medals in 1936, and he would go on to hold alone or share world records in every sprinting discipline. But while plenty of sporting fans know about Owens, few can tell you about an extraordinary act of friendship also witnessed at the Games.
The event in question? It involved the pole vault, where athletes use a nearly 15-foot pole to propel themselves over an increasingly high bar. While pole vault has been a fixture at the Olympics since 1896, it was the 1936 event that gave the sport its real moment in the spotlight.
Indeed, it was a pole vault competition during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin that would cement the sport into the history books. As the night of August 5 drew in, five men remained in the last stage of the final, having cleared a height of 4.15 meters. And the event was being watched by around 25,000 people, all of whom witnessed the artificial lighting switch on as darkness fell.
At just 4.25 meters, American Bill Graber failed to clear the bar and lost his chance of a medal. But a 4.35 meter-vault allowed his countryman, Earle Meadows, to secure gold, though he later failed at 4.45 meters. Now, all that remained was a jump-off to decide silver and bronze.
A third American, Bill Sefton, failed to pass over the bar on his first try. And now, only two contestants remained: Japanese athletes Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe. According to the competition rules of, they would have to compete until one secured silver and the other was left with bronze – but the men refused.
But before we explore why the athletes made such a decision, let’s explore their lives. Shuhei Nishida was born in Japan in 1910 and his first pole vaulting successes came as a student. He competed in both the Student World Championships and the International University Games. Furthermore, between 1928 and 1935 he won a silver and two golds and picked up the prize at the Far East Championships in Japan in 1930.
In 1932 Nishida won a silver medal in the pole vault at the Los Angeles Olympics. His jump, at just over 4.2 meters, was a Japanese record, and only just over a centimeter behind American William Miller. When he competed in 1936, he was an engineering student at Waseda University and would later go on to work for the Hitachi Group.
Meanwhile, Sueo Oe was also a Japanese pole vaulter. Born in 1914, he was both a rival and friend to Nishida. In 1936, he was a student at Keio University. Unlike Nishida, he had never won an Olympic medal before. Meanwhile, three years after the event, Oe would join the Imperial Japanese Army, where he was killed in December 1941 on Wake Island.
But back to 1936, and Nishida and Oe have just refused to compete against one another at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Indeed, neither had wanted to make the other fail, so they asked to share a joint honor. This baffled onlookers and officials alike, because there was no space for such a request in the rules. Consequently, the two athletes were denied.
Officials then handed the decision over who should take silver and bronze to the wider Japanese team. Earlier in the contest, Oe had taken two attempts to clear the 4.25 meter bar, while Nishida had done it in one. Consequently, the team then decided that Nishida should win the higher silver medal, but that wasn’t good enough for the two athletes.
Nishida and Oe then decided that if the Olympics wouldn’t award them a joint medal, they would do it themselves. So they took their medals to a jeweler back in Japan and had them both split in half. The halves of the silver medal were joined with that of the bronze. This created two hybrids, which later became dubbed “The Medals of Friendship.”
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, Oe would later go on to join the Japanese Imperial Army and was killed in action in 1941, at the age of 27. Meanwhile, Nishida continued to be active in Japanese athletics after the Second World War finished. At the age of 41, he managed to come third at the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi.
Nishida’s career also included time as an international referee. He also later managed Japan’s track-and-field team, before spending the 1950s and 1960s as chief executive of the Japan Amateur Athletic Federation. Later, he joined the Japanese Olympic Committee and 1989 he received the Olympic Order in Silver. Sadly, Nishida died of heart failure eight years later.
Meanwhile, Oe’s medal is privately owned, while Nishida’s was donated to Waseda University. Nevertheless, the two medals remain as a testament to sportsmanship and solidarity, even an in intolerant atmosphere such as that of Nazi Germany. And it serves as a constant reminder that the Olympics can be about much more than just sporting victories.