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Zola returns without regrets

Bloemfontein/London: When Zola Budd-Pieterse makes her marathon debut in London next Sunday it will be a far cry from the pressure she faced as a waif-like, barefoot teenager in the mid-80s.

For a start the South African, now a 36-year-old mother of three, will not be expecting to win.

Described as a heart and lung machine on legs, in her heyday Budd-Pieterse won two world cross country championships, broke the 5,000m world record and set a 3,000m world record indoors.

But her aim on Sunday is to complete the race in around two hours 40 minutes, some 20 minutes slower than defending champion Paula Radcliffe’s time of 2:18:56 set last year.

“The main aim for London is to stay healthy and clear of illness but when I get to the start line I think I’ll be more scared than anyone else in the race,” Budd-Pieterse said.

Budd-Pieterse earned fame and notoriety in the Eighties when she controversially ran under the British flag, dodging anti-Apartheid sanctions against her home country.

She first arrived in Britain in March 1984 as a politically unprepared 17-year-old and was targeted for personal vilification by anti-Apartheid protesters.

The South African teenager began to attract attention after setting an unofficial world record in the 5,000m and 12 world junior records between 1982-84.

She was smuggled into the country on a private jet by the Daily Mail, who helped fast track her to a British passport after discovering that her grandfather was English

The affair was described as “very cloak and dagger” by Daily Mail athletics correspondent Neil Wilson, who travelled to Bloemfontein to meet Budd and brought her back to Britain.

“It was so cloak and dagger that my colleague put out a story to prevent others from knowing why we were there saying that we were looking for Lord Lucan,” Wilson said.

John Bingham, the Earl of Lucan, had vanished in 1974, after the body of the family nanny was discovered at his wife’s house in London. Speculation about what became of him continues to this day.

“We went off on trips and did pretend jobs to try and persuade people that we weren’t there to look at Zola Budd,” Wilson said.

Ironically it was the young Budd who was more aware than anyone of the uproar her sudden change of nationality would cause.

Budd, with the support of the newspaper and the British government, got her passport in a matter of weeks. At the end of April she ran the Olympic qualifier for the 3,000m in Dartford.

But at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics she was booed home in the event after American favourite Mary Decker tripped on Budd’s heel and fell. A tearful Budd finished seventh.

International success followed a year later when she won the world cross-country championship barefoot and broke the 5,000m world record.

Budd retained her world cross-country crown in 1986 but her inclusion in the English team for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh caused a boycott by some countries, even though she later withdrew.

Dogged by protesters and facing increasing criticism over the amount of time she was spending in South Africa, where her family still lived, Budd announced she was quitting athletics in May 1988 and returned home.

She married millionaire liquor store owner Mike Pieterse in April 1989 and had three children — Lisa, now seven, and five-year-old twins Mikey and Azelle.

But despite her previous bad experiences Budd-Pieterse said she had no reservations about making her marathon debut in Britain.

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