May 10, 2021
Zola Budd Pieterse has every reason in the world to hate the sport of track and field, but she doesn't. Instead, she gives back to it in ways that will help today's young stars experience it in a much more positive way than she did. It has not, however, been an easy journey.
Zola grew up on a farm in South Africa before suddenly being thrust on the world stage at the age of 17 when she ran a world record time in the 5000m. That time would not be ratified by the IAAF because it did not recognize competitions in her home country due to apartheid policies there. Thus to compete internationally, she was sent to Great Britain to claim UK citizenship since her grandfather was British.
This move was met with great controversy as many meet organizers and fans protested her naturalization, making life difficult for Zola upon her arrival. In spite of the less-than-warm welcome, Zola still ran extremely well, claiming the official 5000m world record and earning a spot in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
In the final in LA, she was involved in a collision with Mary Decker Slaney that sent Mary to the ground and left Zola reeling from the boos that then filled the Olympic stadium, directed toward her even though the contact was incidental. Even with this disappointment, Zola went on to claim more European records, win the World Cross Country Championship in back to back years, and make another Olympic team in 1992.
In this episode, Zola joins Shanna and Kara to talk about it all including growing up as a running prodigy, how she dealt with the intensity of the negative spotlight often on her, and why she competed barefoot and always clean in the steroid era of the 1980s and EPO era of the early 1990s.
Zola then shares how she reclaimed her love for the sport as her own while also coaching the next generation of runners in her current home city of Conway, South Carolina. Zola is an absolute legend in our sport, and we are so honored to share her story.