The Blame Game
“She was in every ad campaign, Kellogg’s, Timex,” Rick Reilly recalls as the screen is filled with images of Mary Decker. “I remember this Kodak ad: the press release was something like ‘Slim, trim, prim, full of vim, and smiling from rim to rim!’ It was like we wanted to hang her from our rearview mirror. We’re gonna go with you, all the way, Mary.”
Reilly’s characterization is at once specific to Mary Decker and also germane to the ongoing expansion of the marketing of sports. Both become a focus in Runner, the Nine for IX documentary premiering on 13 August, in which middle distance runner Mary Decker’s career comes to an infamous climax during the 1984 Olympics, held in Los Angeles and described by Newsweek‘s John Jeansonne as “the first corporate Olympics.” As much as the Decker campaigns served to make her visible and popular, as America’s Sweetheart,” they also were part of increasing public pressures for athletes.
These pressures have to do with demands as well as hopes. If “we” might have wanted to hang Decker from “our review mirror,” we also wanted her to deliver to expectations, to advance national pride and declaim American superiority. Just so, another version of the Kodak ad Reilly mentions is captioned, “The moment of truth,” a “moment” underscored when the camera in Shola Lynch’s documentary pans up the ad page to show a photo of Decker’s victory in the 1983 Helsinki victory in the 1500 meters, in which the Russian Zamira Zaytseva lunged and fell before she crossed the finish line. “A single hairsbreadth can separate triumph from tragedy,” reads the ad.
Here, Decker is triumphant, the race footage accompanied by bracing commentary from her trainers (“Part of being an elite athlete is being able to challenge yourself, to improve and that does mean push the limits”) and husband Richard Slaney (the race, he says, “gave me a heart attack”). In 1984, as you know, she was involved in another fall that changed the race outcome, this one at the Los Angeles Games. Runner is essentially built around this race, much as Decker’s career has been. No matter what else she accomplished, the image that is most vivid in collective memory is that of her crumpled on the track after she was entangled with 18-year-old South African runner Zola Budd during the 3,000.
The film offers impressions of Decker before and after this iconic moment, including interviews with Budd, the Olympic veteran and reporter Donna de Varona, and one of Decker’s Olympic teammates, Ruth Wysocki. The story is complicated by multiple factors, not least being Decker’s long history of injuries (the film shows a chart of her multiple surgeries and other sorts of repairs since her start as an 11- or 12-year-old prodigy). Though Runner doesn’t consider hows and whys, the different sorts of precautions of lack of same that might have been taken during this period, the sheer number of troubles is remarkable; here, it’s used to mark her courage and determination (she had “the ability to bounce back, the ability to train in pain and the ability to compete in pain”), rather than what might have been wrong in her or other athletes’ regimens.
Another factor was the politics of the Olympics, the 1984 Games as troubled in their own way as other years. For one thing, they followed the 1980 Games in Russia, boycotted by the US (and so, narrowing Decker’s chances for a gold medal). For another, as Reilly puts it, the efforts to bring in the phenomenon Budd to run against Decker were particularly controversial. Though the South African team was banned from competing in 1984, the Daily Mail took up her cause, and found a way for her to become a member of the British team. As you watch the tiny Budd sit before a press conference, Reilly recalls, she “was just an innocent in all these machinations of political maneuvering. She was not ready for this, she was at most 90 pounds, and most of that was glasses.” Budd’s size, naiveté, and youth are complications following the accident, helping to make Decker’s outrage look extra mean, playing what Reilly terms “the blame game.”
The film makes clear that each of these elements was amplified by TV, by the commercial stakes in the Games and in sports celebrity more broadly, and by the national, gender, and race politics surrounding these Games. Where Budd was chastised for not knowing about apartheid, and especially not knowing the name “Nelson Mandela” (“I don’t talk about it and I tend not to talk about it, because it’s a very difficult situation,” she tells a reporter, rather a stunning non-answer), Decker was reproved for snapping at Budd after the race and then complaining to reporters, repeatedly (“I don’t think there’s any question that she was in the wrong”).
Any of these instances of poor sportsmanship have as much to do with media coverage as anything anyone said at a given moment. The 1984 Games were corporate in the US, and in a burgeoning international market, and amateur (or other) sports have never been the same since. Endorsements and expectations, the essential and apparently inevitable overexposure conjured by cable news (ESPN was founded in 1979, CNN in 1980), all affect the ways that athletes work in the world, the ways they’re presented, promoted, and exploited. As Runner shows, the story of Mary Decker is that story, despite and because of her career and her campaigns, the prizes she won and the records she set and still holds.