Sunday, 23 June 2013

Legend of the Cheetah girl - An interview with Zola Budd

“Come on Christina” Betsy shouted in a shrill voice, “Or we’ll miss seeing the Spider fish!”
I ran down the cliffs to meet her.

It was summer on our Uncle Harry’s private island, we had finished school and were here on a working holiday. Spider fish were famous on the Island, they were an exquisite blue, with a body of a fish, but 6 long fins, hence their unusual name.

Betsy and I had taken on a summer jobs as our Uncles assistants, he was a world famous marine life expert and we were there to help him by watching and documenting the Spider Fish.

It was a beautiful day on the island, the sun was shining and a cool breeze rippled through our hair and made our cheeks ruddy. “Show’s you’re hard workers” Uncle said.

We got to the edge of the cliffs and started cautiously down onto the beach, we had heard tell tale of the Cheetah girl, who ran bare foot like the wind and we didn’t want to get eaten.

“Quick, let’s get to the sea, look at these ruddy fish and scarper” whispered Betsy, too afraid to speak allowed for fear of the Cheetah girl who would hear us and rip our heads off.

But, just as we started across the wet sand, we heard a faint pat, pat, patting behind us, we gasped and held our breaths, they were so fast approaching us, were we just about to die???

Frozen with fear we stood on the beach, too afraid to turn around for fear of snarling jaws behind us, when suddenly….
… I felt a tap on my shoulder, my head would not turn no matter how much I wanted it to. Then a voice, “Hi guys, I’d watch out if I were you, someone dropped a glass bottle over by the rocks and you don’t want to hurt yourselves” The voice was not what we expected, it had an accent, from what I learnt in my cultural studies classes, I’m guessing it was South African and it sounded friendly. Both Betsy and I turned quickly to face this creature.

But what we saw shocked us more than if we had been faced with the Cheetah girl, no furry face, no spots, no pointy teeth, just a pleasant  smile and a mop of wavy hair, this couldn’t be the Cheetah girl? We eyed this stranger up and down, it was then we noticed, goodness! she had no shoes! Betsy and I looked at each other, could this be…? Was it true…? That this girl, who ran like the wind with no shoes was the Cheetah girl?

We laughed relieved at our survival and at the revelation that the monster of legend was just a human.

Then she introduced herself.

“Hi,” She said, “I’m Zola”

“Zola Budd!” we both gasped!!

Zola Budd, former Olympic track and field competitor! Zola Budd, who in less than 3 years broke 2 5000 metre races and was the winner of the world cross country Championships! Zola Budd, who raced barefoot, which caused controversy but whose achievements were sadly often overshadowed by political issues during her short stay in the United Kingdom. Zola Budd, the myth!

“Crikey!” we both cried.

She seemed very friendly and I had a pen and paper in my hand, so I though why not ask some questions? I would be such a bally scoop for our school newspaper and it felt rude not too. I started with a tough one…

“How did you feel about the controversy around your arrival to Britain? Did you ever imagine that it would happen and Were you prepared for it? Did it annoy you that it seemed that the focus seemed to be more on your nationality than your running!”
“It was a very difficult time.  I took the political abuse very personal because I feel i was unfairly targeted.”  

I looked at her feet, “I have to ask,” I said, “But why bare foot? Did you imagine how much focus would be on you because you ran shoeless?”
“Everybody in SA runs barefoot as kids. Was strange that people in the rest of the world do not go barefoot.”

I thought of what she had warned about the glass.

“Did you ever hurt yourself whilst running barefoot in training?”
“No, never got injuries, stepped in a few thorns.”

“How did you keep stride after Mary Decker's spike had cut you in the 1984 3000 meters in LA? Do you remember the pain? What kept you going?”
“When u are in a race u don’t feel anything, so i did not feel her spiking me.”

“I considered my 500 meter swimming badge and wondered what it would be like to break a world record? It must be incredible!”
“It feels good because you have accomplished something, but it is only temporary.  It becomes a target for other people.”

“David Coleman famously said "Zola Budd is no myth", how did this feel? You still very young and you were being referred to as a myth!”
“It feels like it is happening to someone else.  I have never seen myself as a running star or anything.”

I remember that feeling, I had once been presented with the head ink monitors job, it felt glorious… Until Elizabeth Allen dared me to eat the masters spam sandwiches and I was stripped of my title. It made me think of school and being young and messing with my chums.

“You were so young when thrown into the limelight, how do you think you coped with it, then and looking back now and what advice would you give your teen self now?”
“It is difficult because people expect so much of you.  I cope by having my own goals and being responsible for myself.  You can never appease everybody, so i just try and be true to myself.  When i think of myself i am still that little girl who ran barefoot on farm roads.”

Betsy chirped in with a question…

“How do you feel the sport, or sport in general, has changed? Do you think the terms 'sports person' and 'celebrity' have begun to merge?”
“Running has changed a lot.  You have the top runners who are very competitive and race internationally which is good, but then you have lifestyle runners who carries the sport.  More and more women are running which is great for running and for women.  Running empowers a lot of women and give them goals and help them live a healthy lifestyle”

Pushing Betsy aside I carried on with my questioning.

What do you think of the new trend of 'barefoot running'? Were you decades ahead of your
“Yes, I was ahead of my time ( joke).  It is good for running but runners have to be careful. It takes years to run barefoot and i never ran barefoot on the road. It is just too dangerous.”

“You still run today, as do your children, how often do you train? Do you train with them? Are they tempted to go shoeless? Do you still?”
“My kids run but i am not their coach, I just run with them.”

And with that and a brief wave she was off… As fast as the wind… like something had startled her.

We rushed to finish our duties, “Uncle will be terribly cross if we don’t get this finished and we are so late already!” cried Betsy “But what a simply wizzer excuse, eh?”

But as we watched the water, waiting for a glimpse of the Spider fish, we heard it, a soft pat pat, pat… But this time there was no happy hello, no friendly smile or chit chat, this time all we heard was a soft, extended growl…



  1. What an amazing woman!

  2. amzing, such an inspirational story