A talent apparent in the Barefoot running community is that we can tie-in almost anything to barefoot running. How many barefoot runners can run 5 miles while eating doughnuts? I can name three. Actually three started, but two were disqualified because they failed to eat 24 donuts – I think at least one of them threw up.
I am a genius for making tenuous links. As I was running my usual route, I came up with another random connection. How do you connect barefoot running, equality for women and the Olympics?
1984. Zola Budd would have also worked too.
I find it astonishing that the longest distance women were allowed to run in the Olympics prior to LA was 1,500m and that distance was a recent introduction. My minimum distance of 5K – a distance I try to run at least three times a week — was only introduced in 1996. 1996! I had left College and was in full-time work at that point.
Women’s participation in Olympic track and field was forced onto the IOC and the IAAF by the creation of “The Women’s Olympics” first held in Paris in 1922. Ten or so events were held over one day and there were four “Women’s Olympics” while the IOC agreed (and then failed to fulfill) an arrangement where the Olympics name would be dropped from the event in exchange for the inclusion of 10 events for women into the Olympic games. The IOC only allowed five in the end.
In 1928 women were allowed to participate in these five events. The longest distance women were allowed to compete in was 800m, but after several women were treated for exhaustion after the final, even this distance was dropped for 20 years.
It was only during the L.A. games in 1984 where women were allowed to run long-distance races as part of the Olympics. The two races on offer were the 3000m and the marathon.
This is where the barefoot running angle comes in.
The first Women’s 3000m race at the Olympics is one that has gone down in history. The infamous final between Mary Decker, running for the USA and Zola Budd — although she was born in South Africa — running for Great Britain.
In 1984, Budd, at the age of 17 had already broken the 5000m world record, but due to the apartheid boycott on South African sport, the record was never ratified. Later that year, she applied for British citizenship – her Grandfather was British- and was granted a passport amid much controversy.
However, it wasn’t just Budd’s nationality that was controversial. Her running shoes – or lack of them — was her most famous trait. If you ask people to name a famous barefoot runner, she would be at the top of the list.
Budd, along with Abebe Bikila who won the 1960 Olympic Marathon running barefoot, prove that you don’t require shoes to run fast.
Budd’s 3000m final in the 1984 Olympics was another controversy in a long list. Three running collisions during the race meant that she and her running rival Mary Decker never made it to the podium. Decker fell after the third collision and was unable to finish; Budd finished seventh in 8:48 – a full 11 seconds outside of her personal best. As to who was responsible for the multiple collisions, and whether they were deliberate, is still up for debate today and is very dependent on which side of the Atlantic you reside on.
Budd’s career continued to be controversial. After a number of world track events, she was suspended in 1988 by the IAFF for competing in South Africa, which was still under an international boycott. After retiring from international athletics, Budd returned to the Olympic field in 1992 to compete for South Africa when apartheid fell.
Budd, still competes in the country of her birth and now her children follow in her footsteps.
It’s perhaps an irony that as the acceptance of women competing in the Olympics has had greater development in a shorter period of time, the acceptance of running barefoot is still seen as unusual. Before Bikila in 1960, many (male) athletes in Olympic track and field events were wearing what we would today count as minimal or barefoot shoes. Motion control, cushioning, heel-to-toe drops, were not something that was considered important in the early part of the 20th century.
Training, form and dedication make the runner – not the shoes. To be truly great you need to be push the boundaries and be an inspiration. Budd, typifies the battle for women to be accepted in the world of sport and an inspiration on the barefoot running movement on what we can achieve.