Mary Decker and 'the perfect image of Olympic pain'

mary-decker-down-david-burn.jpgOriginal photo: David Burnett/Contact Press Images

With the Rio Olympics fully involved in track and field this week, LA sports historian and journalist David Davis revisits one of the most emotional moments — and photographs — of the 1984 Los Angeles games. It came during the final race in the women's 3,000 meters event. All eyes were on American Mary Decker and her arch rival Zola Budd, a South African teenager who ran barefoot and under a British passport, since South Africa was banned due to apartheid. Decker, 26, was the best known and liked female runner in the U.S. at the time, the holder of many records. Only Olympics glory had eluded her: She was too young for Munich in 1972, too injured for Montreal in '76, and missed Moscow in '80 because the U.S. boycotted. She became a popular figure as she worked hard to get ready for Los Angeles, and her race was on live TV.

During the final she and Budd became tangled and Decker went down. She was hurt and her Olympics were over, and she blamed Budd. "Decker’s wail echoed throughout the Log Angeles Coliseum...," Davis writes.

Davis' way in to the backstory, at Deadspin, is through photographer David Burnett, a freelancer for Time and the co-founder of the Contact Press Images agency. He stationed himself away from the finish-line pack and got the money picture.

He would be the first to tell you that he snapped the pictures—and THE picture—by happenstance. He was at his first Olympics, that most unwieldy of sporting events for journalists to cover, and he was not really a sports photographer....

The sequence comprises, at once, some of the most stunning action shots in all of sports photography, and one of the most moving portraits of loss.


It’s difficult for some to recall, but not so long ago track and field was considered a major sport in this country. ...Among the most heavily covered athletes in the 1970s and early 1980s was Mary Decker, who came along as distance running was swelling in popularity, on the heels of Frank Shorter’s marathon gold medal at Munich and, later, the publication of the best-seller "The Complete Book of Running" by Jim Fixx. Women runners were relatively new to Olympic events beyond the sprints; 1972 marked the first time they raced beyond 800 meters at the Olympics.

All of five feet tall and 86 pounds, most of which seemed to be braces and pigtails, “Little Mary” Decker grew up in front of the media, beginning with her startling breakthrough in 1973, when as a 14-year-old phenom she upset the Soviet Union’s Nijolė Sabaitė in the 800 in Minsk. As she matured into adulthood, every aspect of her life was dissected, including her vulnerable psyche due to family issues, her short-lived marriage to marathoner Ron Tabb, and her subsequent engagement to British discus thrower Richard Slaney....

Decker was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1983. With the Los Angeles Olympics fast approaching, that Decker had grown up in Southern California made her a magnet for sponsors and media coverage. Chicago Tribune reporter Philip Hersh described her as “an American sweetheart and an American sex object.” Now a lithe 5-foot-6 and 108 pounds, most of which was curly brown hair, she was the queen in waiting. Alongside Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses, she was the most anticipated track-and-field athlete before the Games.

Davis' piece for Deadspin also takes readers behind the scenes with the photographers at the Los Angeles games, which introduced many of the shooters to Fujichrome film thanks to a marketing push by the Japanese firm. He has a new book of Los Angeles Olympics photos taken from the Los Angeles Public Library collection, "One Gold Moment: The 1984 Olympics Through the Photographic Lens of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner."

Davis is the author most recently of "Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku." He wrote recently for Zocalo Public Square about Los Angeles' forgotten avenue of the athletes.

Previously at LA Observed:
The most iconic photo in women's soccer was almost never taken

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