Zola Budd, the Daily Mail and a case of chequebook journalism – The Guardian

The unexpected return of former athlete Zola Budd to the headlines in today’s national newspapers was due to the declassification of government papers from 1984.

They are fascinating for two reasons: first, because they reveal the split among ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet; second, because they offer an insight into the Daily Mail’s political clout at the time.

However, despite claims about the ministerial clash being secret, most of the details can be found in Jason Henderson’s book, Collision Course.*

The split, as related in Luke Harding’s Guardian report, was prompted by the Mail’s determination to secure a British passport for Budd, a record-breaking runner who could not take part in international sport because of anti-apartheid sanctions against her homeland, South Africa.

Leon Brittain, the home secretary, was sympathetic. Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, was unenthusiastic. Although Howe was backed by diplomats who grumbled about “cheque book journalism” and the inadvisability of caving in to the Mail’s pressure, Brittan ignored the complaints.

He relied on the fact that Budd had a British-born grandparent. So, just 10 days after she formally applied for British citizenship, 17-year-old Budd got her passport.

“I lived to regret revealing she had a British grandfather”, wrote the Mail’s veteran sportswriter Ian Wooldridge many years later. He had devoted a column to Budd following her feat in breaking the women’s 5000m world record (which could not be ratified because of South Africa’s sporting isolation).

Wooldridge’s column was published after the Mail’s then features editor, John Bryant, had suggested to the paper’s South African correspondent, Peter Younghusband, that he should write a feature about the barefoot record-breaker.

Bryant – a talented runner nicknamed “the marathon man” – has been rightly credited with discovering Budd, although he was worried about the implications of her being whisked away from South Africa. He went on to nurture her through her years in Britain.

It was the Mail’s editor, the late David English, who played the key role. According to Wooldridge’s account, English responded to the news that Budd might be able to compete for Britain by saying: “Brilliant… because of the British family connection she shall run for us.”

Wooldridge observed drily: “By ‘us’ he meant the Daily Mail first and Britain second. He was a dynamic boss with a strict sense of priorities.”

English evidently boasted to his columnist: “I can pick up this phone and get her a British passport in two days.” Reporter Brian Vine was then despatched to South Africa to do the buy-up.

According to one of the declassified foreign office files, the British consul in Johannesburg, RJ Miller, was unimpressed with Vine, accusing him of a “virtuoso display of name-dropping, from the prime minister downwards”.

Vine was able to draw on the Mail’s coffers to sweeten Budd’s avaricious father, Frank. Accounts about the amount differ: £100,000, said an article in Runner’s World; £40,000, said a piece on the Sports Journalists’ Association website.

Whatever the case, Wooldridge recalled that most of the money was filched by her father “whose concern for his daughter’s welfare mostly consisted of protracted lunches in the Savoy Grill and other five-star establishments.” (Years later, when estranged from his daughter, Frank Budd was murdered).

Wooldridge was no stranger to hyperbole but he was probably correct in calling her the “hottest property in world athletics.” And his paper was eager to prove it. To the Mail, as a New York Times article in 2008 pointed out, Budd was “a circulation windfall”.

The Mail’s main rival, the Daily Express, recognised that and in Fleet Street’s time-honoured, dishonourable fashion greeted Budd’s arrival with a front page headline: “Zola, Go Home!”

Steve Friedman, writing for Runner’s World in 2009, takes up the story:

“At her first race in England, the Daily Mail held a press conference beforehand, and pumped in the sound track from Chariots of Fire. The BBC televised the 3,000m event, which Budd won in 9:02.06. That single effort was fast enough to qualify her for the Olympic Games.”

She went on to set a world record of 5:33.15 in the 2,000m in a London race, which inspired the BBC’s commentator, David Coleman, to exclaim: “The message will now be flashed around the world. Zola Budd is no myth.”

So Budd duly went to Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics to run the 3,000m in what ranks as one of the most memorable – most notorious (Guardian), most famous (Mail) – moments in Olympic history.

She collided with America’s sporting sweetheart of the time, Mary Decker, sending her sprawling and out of the race. Budd then ended in seventh place amid loud and protracted booing.

Budd returned to England, ran more races, winning championships and setting a couple of world records. In 1992, with the fall of apartheid, she represented South Africa in the Barcelona Olympics, but failed to qualify for the 3,000m final.

Her life has taken many turns since she slipped from the media spotlight. She married in 1989 and has three children. Now 50, Zola Pieterse lives in the United States, in South Carolina, and still runs for pleasure, specialising in marathons. She is also an athletics coach at the local university.

She was reunited in March this year with Mary Decker Slaney for the making of a documentary, The Fall, about their rivalry. At its release in July, the Guardian’s critic, Peter Bradshaw, called it “a fascinating dramatic finale.”

He also remarked: “Sports careers are managed more carefully nowadays and people can’t be turned into wholly owned subsidiaries of a newspaper’s promotional department.”

*Collision Course: The Olympic tragedy of Mary Decker and Zola Budd by Jason Henderson (Arena Sport)

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