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Why Zola Budd ran barefoot in Los Angeles Olympics

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Zola Budd barefoot runner
Zola Budd, the barefoot runner. Photo/British GQ
  • Zola Budd shocked the world at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles
  • She ran barefoot to send a statement to the international sporting community
  • She also obtained citizenship in Britain despite growing up in South Africa

South Africa has a long history in athletics. However, a never-ending question in it all is why did Zola Budd run barefoot?

Budd is like a life book with a fascinating and depressing life story altogether. She has a thriller story of shattering records while running barefoot and fighting oppression in the South. Unpopularly though, she shoulders huge blame for tripping Mary Decker during the 1984 Olympics Games in the U.S.

As interesting and sad as it sounds, she is a legend who saw the north and south of life but never faltered even in the face of despair. Her sacrificial moments hitting the road with bare feet ultimately liberated her home country sportswise.


The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games remain an unforgettable piece of history in the sporting and political world. It answers why did Zola Budd run barefoot. Despite being a South African native, Budd ran for the United Kingdom popularly known at the time as Great Britain.

She was 18 years old and her face wasn’t new to the world since she always dominated local races back home. However, she wasn’t competing in Los Angeles as a South African. Her home county was not eligible to compete in the Olympics due to the infamous apartheid policies. In fact, no South African would be allowed to participate in any international sports event.

Zola Budd

Zola Budd with Mary Decker. Photo/Shropshire Star

As a patriot, she successfully applied for and got British citizenship because her grandfather was British. That’s why she ran for Britain and not South Africa. Her decision to run barefoot was a form of protest against the international sporting world for condemning her country without offering a solution.

Years later, Budd adopted the shoeless running as her style in subsequent Olympics but it thrust her into more controversy. She collided with Decker during a 3000 m race at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Decker, placed second, attempted to pass Budd from the inside right track. Budd unknowingly moved to the left and collided with Decker who sprawled on the ground.

She dropped out of the race as Budd managed to finish in seventh position. Decker sustained deep bruises but Zola didn’t have it easy as the crowd sent her off with jeers to the finishing line. Three decades later, the controversy is as rife as it was in 1984. Some people blamed Budd for the incident while others defended her.


Much as she grew up in South Africa, Budd had British roots because of her British grandfather. Coupled with the fact South Africa remained banned from international athletics events, she sought citizenship in Great Britain and was successful. Her citizenship birthed many questions about why did Zola Budd run barefoot.

Nonetheless, the move to obtain British citizenship stirred a lot of controversy. Some factions argued that she was an opportunist who betrayed her people just to compete in the Olympics. In her defence, she said that it was the only opportunity she had to fulfil her life’s wish of running in the Olympics. Further, she also justified her rush to obtain UK citizenship saying it gave her a platform to protest the sorting sanctions imposed on South Africa by the international sporting community.


Zola Budd runner barefoot

Zola Budd barefoot runner. Photo/The Times

As ponder over why did Zola Budd run barefoot, there is no defined rule barring runners from running barefoot. But, the Olympic Charter in Rule 50 explicitly cites that n form of racial, political religious advocacy is allowed in the Olympic village. Looking at Budd’s case, her choice to run barefoot had an undertone of political protests.

Further, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) allows runners to compete without shoes. It adds that it encourages runners to have shoes for stability and safety reasons. Going back to athletics history and why did Zola Budd run barefoot, there are a few other classic cases of athletes running without shoes.

Among them is the famous Ethiopian marathon legend Abebe Bikila who ran barefoot at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. He would repeat this again in Los Angeles where Zola Budd was and he won gold medals in both races.

Tegla Loroupe, a Kenyan athletes also stunned millions of people at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She ran barefoot


Zola Budd remains a hot topic for generations to come, but she never let anyone of the negativity pin her down. If anything, the world remembers her for running barefoot as a show of protest for her native South Africa. She is a hero in her own right.

Teresa is a journalist with years of experience in creating web content. She is a wanderlust at heart, but an outgoing sports writer with focus on tennis, athletics, football, motorsports and NBA.

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