Wednesday, August 14, 2013
i watched the premier of "runner" last night - a documentary on the career of mary decker-slaney, which is part of espn's "nine for ix" film series. it was an incredible time capsule - with archival footage of a young mary decker in the 1970's and of decker in her running prime in the 1980's. the bulk of the film centered on her - shall we say, w/the benefit of hindsight - now "infamous" performance at the 1984 summer olympic games in los angeles. in practically an instant she went from the queen of american running to a poster child for an ungracious sore loser! it was painful to watch her blame game in the wake of the 3000 meters.
ironically, back in 1984 i was hardly obsessed with running (seriously), and mostly ran 3-4 miles a few times a week in lower manhattan. the highlights of my runs were loops around the world trade center or out and backs over the brooklyn bridge from my dorm room at pace university. and while the summer games were in the united states, i spent most of that summer traipsing across europe with the benefit of my eurorail pass. i came back in early august, just in time for the games.
like most, my only awareness of mary decker at that time was from what i had read in the papers in the lead up to the games. as the documentary points out, the media built up mary's race as a showdown with zola bud - a running phenomena/prodigy from south africa. plenty of controversy surrounded zola's appearance at the games as a member of the british team. she had somehow gone from a banned south african runner to a passport holding brit (said passport obtained in just 10 days, instead of the typical 2 year wait).
in any event, the 3000 meter race would be less stressful for the both of them because soviet union had decided to return jimmy carter's favor of boycotting the 1980 moscow games and, in turn, boycott the los angeles summer games. a cold war tit for tat. as it turned out, decker wasn't the only one knocked out of the "running." while she was writhing in pain on the infield, zola dropped from leading the pack down to a 7th place finish. instead of the predicted one-two finish (toss-up for the order), neither one medaled.
but while zola tried to apologize for the incident, decker wanted no part of it. rather than accept a bad day, bad outcome, whatever euphemism you'd like to employ, decker's first instinct was to lodge a protest. that lead to zola's initial disqualification - which was subsequently reversed once the officials review the tape and concluded she wasn't responsible for mary's fall. rather than accept that determination and move on, she continued to maintain that "there was no doubt" zola was responsible. a more ungracious and unsportsmanlike moment couldn't be scripted.
decker took the next 3 months off to recover and plan her wedding. she was married on january 1, 1985, and proceeded to win ever race (and collect a few american and world records in the process) she ran that year! those races included decisive victories over her former summer olympic opponents. she was a woman on a mission to prove she was still the world's best - and did it convincingly.
but despite participating 4 olympics, she never brought home a medal. it brings up the classic dilemma of a runner (athlete) who is spectacular on the field, but can't medal at the olympics. is she any less great? of course not. steve prefontaine, america's greatest runner - in my opinion (and hopefully shared by others) - didn't medal in his olympic appearance. is he thought of any less? the mark on decker's career, unfortunately, will always be her petulant conduct in the wake of that disastrous 3000 meter race. is that fair - probably not.
that's especially true because, as of today - in 2013, mary decker still holds the american record in the mile, 1,500 meters, and 3000 meters.