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  • Dec 21, 2014
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ATHLETICS

A trip that's frozen in time

Documentary recalls career of American middle-distance runner Mary Slaney, who will always be associated with a fall at the 1984 Olympics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 5:45am

The kid wearing pigtails racing against women twice her size. The rising star dominating middle-distance running thanks to a powerful kick to the finish that no one could match.

And finally, the heartbroken athlete laying on the track in Los Angeles at the 1984 Summer Olympics, sobbing in pain, disbelief and dejection, her gold-medal attempt denied when she was tripped by a barefooted runner.

Mary Slaney almost stoically watched all those scenes unfold in a documentary by Shola Lynch called Runner, part of the ESPN Films Nine for IX documentary series. "It's almost like looking at someone else's life," Slaney said from her home in Eugene, Oregon.

The film chronicles Slaney's career from when she burst on the scene, going from this fresh-faced kid with all the promise in the world to that infamous day in Los Angeles, where Zola Budd accidentally tripped her late in the race.

I’m part of Olympic history – more notorious than great
MARY SLANEY

Back then, Slaney (known as Decker) was incensed at Budd for cutting her off. Over the years, their relationship has improved. "We've always been friendly to each other, possibly maybe we haven't been friendlier because of the whole situation," Slaney said. "It's really not what it was made out to be way back then."

Even all these years later, Slaney is still asked the same question about that moment: Would she cry as much as she did?

Definitely, she always answers, because it hurt that much. That day in LA was her best shot at an Olympic medal she would never win.

"I worked my whole life for something that was gone in an instant," said Slaney, who qualified for four Olympic teams. "People don't even realise how quickly it happened until they see it happen. It's not slow motion. Of course, I was crying. I'm not ashamed of crying.

"But I'm part of Olympic history - more notorious than great. You take what you get. That's what I got. But I feel like I had a pretty strong career, otherwise."

Slaney still pays attention to track, especially a middle-distance prodigy named Mary Cain, a 17-year-old training with Alberto Salazar. Cain frequently draws comparisons to Slaney, and this week tried to become the youngest woman ever to win a medal in the 1,500 metres at the world championships in Moscow. Cain, though, had to settle for 10th place.

"She sounds like a pretty neat kid. I think it's time we have someone come along that's ready to make the next leap for Americans," Slaney said. "I'm actually excited for this new Mary, because the old Mary fell short."

At the 1984 Olympics, Slaney was the overwhelming favourite to win gold in the 3,000. In one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history, Budd passed Slaney and moved back inside, clipping Slaney and sending her tumbling to the track.

Just like that, Slaney's race was over. She wept on the side of the track, before her eventual husband, British Olympic discus thrower Richard Slaney, carried her away.

It's an image frozen in time.

"Mary will always be perceived as legendary in her sport, and it's almost a shame those scenes are indelibly imprinted in the minds of most viewers who saw them," sportscaster Al Michaels said in the film.

"In the same sense that the groundball goes through Bill Buckner's legs, no matter how great of a player Bill Bucker was, it's the attachment to it. When people think of Mary Decker that's what they're going to think of first."

Slaney's career, though, was quite remarkable, winning the 1,500 and 3,000 at the 1983 world championships - labelled the "Decker Double" by many - and setting 36 national records over her career. She stills holds the US national mark in the 1,500, mile, 2,000 and 3,000.

Her track record at the Olympics? Not so stellar. The Summer Games in LA were her best chance at a medal, especially after the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She was in solid form, too, almost a lock to be on the podium.

Didn't happen.

Budd said in the film that she received death threats after the incident. "I wanted to get away and find some peace and quiet," said Budd, who was initially disqualified only to have her seventh-place finish reinstated after a review.

For Slaney, injuries always seemed to get in the way. She made the 1988 Olympics and again in 1996 at age 37, before calling it a career.

"I didn't retire because I thought I had enough of the sport," Slaney said. "I think part of that makes me feel unfinished. It doesn't make me feel unsuccessful, but that I never really got my full opportunity."

Associated Press

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