EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after her collision with Zola Budd left her sprawling on the Los Angeles Olympics track, Mary Slaney still wonders if the race that came to define her could have had a different outcome.
“All I know is that I ran the race unlike any other time I raced,” America’s greatest middle-distance runner told Reuters on a recent sunny morning.
Typically a front-runner, Slaney, then Mary Decker, said she followed her coach’s advice when she let others lead a portion of the 3,000 meters final many believed would bring her the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold medal.
“And that’s what I did,” said the 50-year-old Slaney, reflecting on the moments before she became entangled with the barefoot-running Budd and tumbled into the infield, injured, while the race continued without her.
Her coach, Dick Brown, told a news conference the next day that he and Decker, who was already world champion, had planned to let the South African-born, British-vested Budd lead, if she wanted, until the final lap. Their concern, he said, was not Budd, but eventual winner Maricica Puica of Romania.
“I am thinking the Olympics are so important, maybe I should listen to the coach,” Slaney, who paced early portions of the race, said in the recent interview.
Although she no longer replays the August 10 race in her head, she admitted: “If I had to go back and say: ‘Oh, are there any regrets?’...Well the big regret is that I didn’t run the way I normally would have run.”
At the time, Slaney blamed Budd’s inexperience for the collision, even though Olympic officials cleared the teenager of fault.
Slaney, who had undergone several operations because of problems with her legs, had been denied the chance to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the U.S.-led boycott.
Heavily criticized in 1984 for her reaction toward Budd, Slaney still feels the pain of what happened. “How is someone in their early 20s that’s been training and trying to get to the Olympics since they were 10, and it happens to be on U.S. soil...,” she began before trailing off with: “And oh, my God.”
She admitted, though, that her reaction might have been different if she had been older at the time.
“You can’t change it,” said Slaney, who turns 51 on August 4. “You don’t know if it would be any different if it happened now...(but) I think as you get older, you are able to control things a little more with yourself.”
She and Budd participated in several events over the years that followed, but “there is really not a relationship,” the American said, describing Budd as “a nice person.”
“It’s not like I knew her before or really had the opportunity to know her after. It’s just history. It’s a part of the sport, part of what happened.”
The two exchanged letters for a year. “We both wished people would just leave it alone and let us get on with running,” Slaney said. “But that was not going to happen.”
After all, as Slaney asked rhetorically, “How many Americans do you think remember the American that should have won that was lying on the track?”
The moment fixed Slaney’s image in the eyes of the U.S. public. It also inspired her.
“In 1985 I just wanted every single time that I stepped on the track to prove that I was the best,” Slaney said.
She had done so at the 1983 world championships, boldly winning both the women’s 1,500 and 3,000 meters.
In 1985 she conquered the world again.
“That was a satisfying feeling to run the entire season being undefeated, run against everybody from the Olympics, essentially run all my fastest times except the 1,500...break the world record in the mile and win the overall grand prix,” she said.
She never won an Olympic medal, though.
“It was something that she dearly wanted. For one reason or another, it never happened,” said Ron Bellamy, sports editor of Eugene’s newspaper, The Register-Guard.
Eighth in the 1,500 meters and 10th in the 3,000 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Slaney missed making the 1992 U.S. team by one spot in the 1,500 and failed to advance to the 5,000 finals at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Even more upsetting was a controversial doping test at the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials which showed her ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was higher than international rules allowed.
Slaney and her lawyers contended the test was unreliable for women taking birth control pills but the sport’s international governing body, now the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), temporarily suspended her in June 1997. U.S. officials reinstated her after a hearing but an IAAF arbitration panel ruled in 1999 that she had committed a doping offence.
“It was an attack on my character, an attack on my entire running career,” Slaney said. “I just felt like someone ripped my heart out.”
Bellamy continues to believe Slaney was wronged.
“I’m not a scientist, I’m not an expert, but I do not believe that she cheated, would have thought of cheating, needed to cheat,” he said, adding that her long, record-breaking career spoke for itself.
Along with 17 official and unofficial world records, Slaney at one point held the American record for every distance from 800 to 10,000 meters. Five U.S. records are still hers.
“I helped with the progression of female running, female sports in this country, which gives me a large amount of satisfaction,” she said.
“But at the same time, I felt there was so much more...with all the injuries, all the surgeries and everything else. I feel like I would have liked more chances.”
Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org