Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mary, Zola And Ashley

TigerBlog didn't set out to watch the Mary Decker Slaney/Zola Budd "Nine for IX" documentary.

He also didn't set out to write about it either, owing to the fact that he can't simply write about each one as it happens.

Hey, things don't always work out the way they're planned.

As an aside, TB is hoping Peter Farrell, Princeton's women's track and field coach, happens by before he's done writing this, just for his insight, which TB thinks would be considerable. Can't say for sure if he will, but there's about a 75% chance that Farrell stops in and a 100% chance he has a strong opinion.

Anyway, there was TB last night, flipping through the channels.

There was a "Seinfeld" repeat of highlights of the first 100 episodes, which basically sums up everything TigerBlog has always thought about the show, which is that the early episodes are as funny as anything that has ever been on TV and the later episodes are just average with too much forced humor that is barely funny at all.

There was a "Big Bang Theory" episode, the one where Sheldon's twin sister shows up and Leonard, Howard and Raj fall over themselves trying to impress her. It includes the classic line where Howard, thinking that Sheldon wouldn't approve of him with his sister because he's Jewish, suggests he would beat his rabbi with a pork chop to be with her.

By the time that episode went to its last commercial, TB finally saw that the Decker/Budd story was on ESPN.

If you don't know the back story, Decker was America's top female runner - and something of a national sweetheart -  heading into the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Budd was a tiny teenager from South Africa, a country whose apartheid policies kept it from being eligible for the Olympics.

Budd, who was running times in the 1,500 and 3,000 that rivaled Decker's, was fast-tracked for British citizenship so she could run at the Olympics. The 1984 Olympics were boycotted by the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc (TB never thought he'd be nostalgic about the Cold War), mostly because the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow over, of all things, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Decker, by the way, would have been a gold medal favorite in 1980.

A huge story of the Games was going to be the meeting between Budd and Decker, to the point where it was probably the No. 1 story heading into the Olympics.

Anyway, the two went head-to-head in the 3,000, and they were in the lead midway through the race when they got tangled up. Decker went down, Budd kept going - and neither would finish with a medal.

That's the part TB remembered. He also had a vague memory that everyone went from liking Decker to not liking her, including TB. He just couldn't remember why.

Budd was originally disqualified from her seventh-place finish and then forced to leave Los Angeles because of the backlash.

As for Decker, TB did not remember her disastrous press conference after the race, where first she lashed out at Budd, whose attempt to talk to Decker after the race was met with a response of "don't bother," and then a tearful exit.

Decker's popularity was destroyed that day. She would make it to two more Olympics after that but never win a medal, her best chances gone from the 1980 boycott and the fall with Budd in 1984.

The documentary was really good, like all documentaries should be, at bringing back the missing details from something that was such a big deal in the moment. Decker and Budd were both very up front about what happened to them back then, which made the movie better.

This past week, the World Championships of track and field were held in Russia, which is no longer the Soviet Union, though every now and then it and this country like to remind people of what it used to be like, such as with the recent Snowden situation. Multiply that out by a lot and you have U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Anyway, nobody boycotted the track and field championships this time around, which meant that the best women's steeplechasers in the world were there.

One of them was Princeton's 2011 grad Ashley Higginson, who ran the steeplechase in Russia but did not qualify for the final.

Still, she was the fastest of the three Americans who competed, topping one by less than a second and the other by 13 seconds. Higginson would finish seven spots out of the final.

Her goal is the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Decker's fall in 1984 meant she had to wait four more years to try again. Higginson is in a somewhat similar position after having finished fourth at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

That has to be the absolute worst. Finishing fourth in the Olympics means missing out on a medal but at least getting the Olympic experience. Finishing fourth at the Trials means missing out on all of that.

TB gives Higginson a lot of credit for pushing forward. And for putting herself in such a great position for redemption.

Princeton's Donn Cabral reached the 2012 Olympics and the final once there in the steeplechase. TB doesn't really understand what it is about the event and Princeton, but it's a fun event - seven hurdles and one water jump each of seven laps of the 3,000 meter event.

Higginson is on track, as it were, to make up in 2016 for what just slipped away a year ago. There are three long years to go, but her experience this summer clearly helps her.

The Olympics are a huge goal. Not everyone is there to win a medal.

Mary Decker was, but never did.

Ashley Higginson? Hopefully she'll get there in three more years. Anything after that would be just fine.

Oh, and Peter Farrell never came by. Too bad. But TB will get his take on the Decker/Budd situation.

He'll definitely have one.

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