skip to content
10 Aug 1984
Los Angeles 1984

Puica triumphs after iconic Decker-Budd clash

The inaugural running of the women’s 3,000m at the Olympic Games in 1984 proved in many ways a tragedy for all three of its main protagonists, and arguably became the most memorable race of the modern era.

The record books will show that Romania’s Maricica Puica won the gold medal on a sunny evening at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, but that only tells a tiny fraction of the remarkable story.

For this was the race where the long-awaited, controversial clash between America’s darling Mary Decker and the barefoot, South African-born Zola Budd came to a dramatic head.

In hindsight, it’s difficult to believe that all the strands of this story came together in the way they did but the image of Decker falling to the ground in agony after clipping Budd’s leg is right up there with the most iconic moments in the history of the Games.

The year previously she had brilliantly completed a 1500m-3000m double at the world championships in Helsinki, and with the powerful Eastern Bloc absent it seemed like victory was hers for the taking.

However at a small meeting in South Africa in January 1984, the 17-year-old Budd smashed six seconds off Decker’s world 5000m record. It sent shockwaves through the sport.

Banned from the global sporting arena because of South Africa’s apartheid regime, Budd’s world record was not recognised by the governing bodies and she faced a career on the outside looking in at the rest of the world’s top athletes.

Yet news of her world-beating exploits reached the UK where a national newspaper funded Budd’s father and his bid to secure his daughter a British passport by virtue of his own father’s birthplace.

Helped by clearing bureaucratic hurdles that took others years to overcome, Budd was awarded a British passport in double quick time and the showdown everyone was talking about with Decker was on.

The tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic had an absolute field day in the lead-up to the Games, the British newspapers working themselves into a frenzy like they had with Seb Cioe and Steve Ovett four years previously.

The race itself has become the stuff of legend.

Budd and fellow British runner Wendy Sly pulled clear of the pack with Decker and Puica. With just over four laps to go Budd and Decker had their first coming together but both recovered their stride.

But a few paces further and Decker was brought crashing to the ground when Budd cut to the inside with the American too close behind her.

Decker tried to get back on her feet but she had done serious damage to her left hip and she was left in tears on the inside of the track.

She was inconsolable. Her husband and medical staff came to her assistance but she was in floods of tears, and the crowd vented their spleen on Budd.

She was booed at every turn even though the incident had left her with a bloody foot from Decker’s spikes.

Puica and Sly pulled clear of the clearly toiling Budd and the Romanian pounced in the final 200m to clinch the first ever gold medal at the distance. Budd finished seventh.

Budd was initially disqualified for her movement to the inside of the track but on appeal the ban was rescinded, and after the bitter acrimony that followed the race had died, it was generally accepted that it was a normal racing incident, no-one was specifically to blame.

back to top