The latest Nine for IX documentary The Runner directed by Shola Lynch (Free Angela and all Political Prisoners) will premiere tonight at 8pm on ESPN. The film tells the story of the career of middle distance runner Mary Decker and the repercussions of her 1984 Olympic run-in with Zola Budd. It’s an infamous event in the annals of sport, and seeing it again and hearing from the principals involved is fascinating. It changed both their lives.
Director Shola Lynch answered some questions (by email) about the making of the film
Women and Hollywood: What drew you to this story?
Shola Lynch: I broke my first national record in the
800m when I was 14. So you can say I used to run, but it doesn’t really
underscore how every fiber of my being was put towards a long term goal – being
the best – and hopefully winning a gold medal one day. When I was coming up,
Mary Decker owned the middle distances in the US, and often in the world. It is
astonishing to think that a handful of her records from the 1980’s have still to this day not
WaH: Reviewing that moment in time was so interesting because it illuminates so
many things about how women are supposed to act and to be and it throws them
all out the window. Mary Decker was pissed and upset and sad that she
wore it all over herself. Some of the commentators in your piece were
clearly not prepared for that and were very upset with how she handled the aftermath.
She made herself a victim. Talk a little about the lingering
bitterness that clearly comes across in your piece.
SL: You have to remember that the 1984
Olympics is really the beginning of the big corporate games, which could launch
an athlete financially. No one had PR handlers. What is great with Mary is what
you see is what you get and you really see how she’s feeling. Whether you like it or not, she
had a personality. Too many athletes today are trying to sell and be perfect,
which frankly is boring.
It was not so great that this was the
first 3,000 meters race in the Olympics ever, and it ended in a “cat
fight.” We blame the women but the drama was stoked by the British
tabloid, which paid for Zola’s exclusive story. I really wish we could have
interviewed someone from the Daily Mail who had been involved.
WaH: Mary does not come off as a very nice and gracious person in general.
But you can still respect her accomplishments and feel for her that she
did not accomplish her dreams. But she wears bitterness on her sleeve and
I think that is something that we don’t see very often (or we are not
comfortable seeing) with athletes of her caliber. Do you think we are too hard
on women regarding the like-ability factor? is there a double standard?
SL: There is definitely a double standard.
Mary Decker is the best American middle distance runner to-date and this relates to how she will be remembered. It is fascinating that 1984 totally eclipsed her
overall and decades long career accomplishments in our remembrance of her. We
generally forgive the fellas for their bad behavior. And in retrospect, she
cried. So what. It made for great Sports TV. I was glued to the race and the
aftermath. I was also part of condemnation chorus. But should it define her
legacy? That is one of the main questions of the doc.
WaH: I can’t help but feel really sorry for Zola Budd who was clearly used and
thrown in the deep end of the pool before she was ready to swim. How has
her life turned out?
SL: She’s divorced with children and still
loves to run — and compete. Right now, she’s into ultra-marathons.
WaH: What does Mary Decker’s story teach us about women in sports?
SL: In sports and in life — don’t be afraid
to throw an elbow. Decker wanted to win a gold medal so badly. She became
hesitant. In the race, if she had nudged Zola, which would have been her
right, we might be telling a different story.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?
SL: I had packed away my track memories.
Working on this they were all dredged up – the good, the bad and the
ugly. The best part was interviewing Mary
Decker and also Zola Budd. Each woman was honest and frank in her way. I’d like
to think it is because they trusted me as a sister athlete.
WaH: What will be seeing from you next?
SL: I’m getting myself together to pitch and
write the book based on the Free Angela documentary research. I’m also
developing a doc to write and the script for a narrative action movie based on
Harriet Tubman, the anti-slavery freedom fighter. That woman had powers –
one of which was to cloak herself in invisibility. It is time to re-imagine her