The best thing in Runner’s favor is that it wrings compelling personal drama out of a patently insignificant moment in sports history on a grand scale. I know that sounds demeaning, and I don’t mean it that way. But there are only so many times you can hear “one of the best female middle distance runners” and not think that perhaps Mary Decker’s significance as a sports figure was exaggerated. But that realization—and prior knowledge of the 1984 women’s 3000 meters, which anyone whose seen a collection of infamous sports photos knows—didn’t keep me from holding my breath a bit as Runner took an agonizingly long time leading up to Zola Budd surging ahead of Decker, the accidental trip, and the now-ubiquitous image of Decker sobbing uncontrollably, her dreams shattered in front of millions.
A few minutes after the documentary ended, I called my parents, who were both well out of graduate/medical school during the 1984 Olympics and involved in their professional lives. I mentioned Mary Decker’s name, and my father took about 10 seconds on the other end before asking, “Who is she again?”. That’s what I find so interesting about Runner. The idea of an athlete so successful at such an arbitrary athletic measure and permanently ingrained in the history of the Olympic games, yet so disconnected from modern sports history fascinates me.
Running should be a more impressive achievement than putting a ball through a hoop or through a net or running a lemon-shaped pigskin over a line against other padded gladiators, since it’s just pure athletic ability. It’s classical fitness, strength, and endurance, but track and field—especially middle-distance running—lacks the wow factor of other sports. Watching Usain Bolt run the fastest sprint still holds an honorable position—though doping throws the whole endeavor into question—but track and field is a once-an-Olympiad event for one week, and then it disappears behind the marketing machines of the four major male team sports (and sometimes soccer) in America.
Runner has a laser focus, trimming away all context to deal with Mary Decker’s story in a vacuum, bringing in the supporting players as necessary, and creating a surprisingly moving film about a sport that rarely holds interest with the American viewing public. Runner reaches back to when American track and field mattered, back to the past when boxing and horse racing were still holding on as relevant sports, before the MLB, NFL, and NBA became marketing forces that dominated sports brands that didn’t stick around as permanent fixtures on the calendar every year.
Mary Decker is a bit of a rarity in American Olympic history: an athlete who rose to national prominence at a young age, dominated her particular events for over a decade while maintaining a spotlight, but through injuries and political circumstances never won an Olympic medal. To hear Decker speak today is to feel the weight of anguish she still carries for that missing accomplishment. Charles Barkley also carries that weight despite his transition to court jester as a basketball analyst on TNT and CBS. It’s compelling to watch athletes rise to a pinnacle and then deal with the ultimate public failing, one most people never have to live through, with cameras and microphones in their face. (This also brings up the question of success and failure in this context. Decker’s confidence and race history precipitated an expectation of victory, while most other athletes are simply proud to be at the Olympics without the tremendous sense of failure if they go home without any medal.)
Decker’s personal rise feels triumphant, and director Shola Lynch makes that trajectory feel preordained, showing clips of Decker an early teenager keeping up with and surpassing far older runners. In a time when the Olympics meant a showdown between western capitalism and eastern socialism, Mary Decker went out and beat the legendarily doped-up East German athletes and the punishing Russians who knocked her off her race during her first international competition as a young girl.
It would be easy to say that Jimmy Carter’s administration cost Mary Decker her Olympic medal. But considering the boycotts didn’t do much of anything to change policy, and that Olympic Committees seem unwilling to suggest boycotts now that major corporations have so much invested—we do need to have the Sochi discussion at some point since our own athletes will be in danger—Carter’s move to boycott Moscow, retaliated by the Soviets four years later in Los Angeles, seems frivolous in the vacuum of Decker’s narrative. But just today, Tasha Robinson’s interview with Chicago chef Amy Le at The Dissolve has the perfect line to refute this excuse: “No matter what happens, there’s a lot of things you can never control, because other people will dictate how things are going to happen. How you choose to react to it distinguishes each individual person’s reaction.”
And that’s why Decker’s reaction to the 1984 race with Zola Budd rang so false. The sequence itself is incredibly tense—with all the buildup from Budd’s story leaving South Africa (under an athletics ban due to apartheid) and receiving a suspiciously quick passport in Britain to compete in the Olympics—and then the footage of the race itself. But it is the behavior after that shows just how voracious sports media can be in crafting a marketable narrative instead of treating athletes as complete humans with troubling but justifiable emotions.
Decker is absolutely correct about the double standard set for women. Act strong and confident, and you’ll be labeled a bitch; cry because the dream you’ve had since the age of 12 just went down the drain, you’re a crybaby. We want our athletes tough but fair, and we only expect that graciously gritty reaction in loss; winning cures all ailments under the national banner. But that doesn’t forgive the way Decker treated Budd in the aftermath, and what Runner illustrates subtly is that Budd got the opportunity Decker was denied as a promising teenager too young to compete at the Olympic trials. More than any other runner before or since, Zola Budd was Mary Decker, inadvertently caused the end of Decker’s dream for an Olympic medal, and then suffered the ire of an idol and shied away from an athletic prowess Budd developed as an escape from her sister’s death.
There’s some evocative documentary filmmaking that crafts that moment in 1984 as a personally significant parallel between the two women. Lynch doesn’t go in for connection, Decker doesn’t ruminate on the similarities between their stories, and though Rick Reilly—oh, the words I am reserving on the choice to include that talking head—mentions multiple times that Budd idolized Decker, Lynch never shows any footage from the Budd interview to suggest that kind of relationship. In archival footage, Budd comes off as a frightened, homesick teenager thrust into an international spotlight, every bit as insecure and uncertain as Decker, according to her former coach. That implied symmetry forms the strongest bond of the film.
If there’s anything Runner leaves out, it’s any mention of connection between Budd and Decker later in life. On the one hand, it’s nice that Lynch didn’t try to bring the two together to discuss the moment, like many emotionally manipulative films would. But it’s curious how the film trails off at the end with no solid endpoint. The optimist in me wants a happy ending, to hear that the two athletes reconciled and became at least respectful acquaintances, but apparently that wasn’t to be, and Decker’s fiercely competitive personality bears that out. Shola Lynch prunes nearly everything away but the bare essentials of Decker’s story, and while it may put on kid gloves at certain points, the emotionally resonant moments make it a strong entry in the Nine For IX series.
- Runner is mainly about the buildup and immediate aftermath of the 1984 Olympics, centering on Decker and including Budd. However, in the closing moments a montage shows Decker’s continued attempts at Olympic glory, including the 1996 games in Atlanta. Which brings up the part of Decker’s career this documentary wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole: the doping accusations and multiple court cases and lawsuits, ending in the IAAF stripping Decker of a silver medal at the 1997 world championships. Decker protested the way the T/E (testosterone to epitestosterone) test was administered, and now the test has an additional step, to measure whether birth control or other factors trigged the higher than normal hormone ratio (I believe by measuring carbon in some way). But that specter remains over Decker’s career, and it could’ve been quashed simply by excising anything about her career past that great season in 1984.
- If there’s a modern equivalent to Decker in American Olympic athletics, it’s probably Lolo Jones, who seems so hungry for a medal that she doesn’t know how to interact with the press. But she’s not nearly as successful or beloved as Decker was before those 1984 games.