Two South African Athletes Run to Other Countries for a Shot at the Olympics

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Because of their country's apartheid policy, South African amateur athletes are banned from international competition. So they are doomed to compete in obscurity or forced to abandon their native land. Two world-class runners who have adopted the latter course are Sydney Maree and Zola Budd, whose routes have been as different as the color of their skin. Maree, who is black, became an American citizen last week, and he expects to represent the U.S. in the 1,500 meters at this summer's Olympics Los Angeles. Budd, who is white, left life on her family farm to travel to England, where she is now at the center of a roiling controversy, her fate as a potential Olympian undecided.

For six long years Sydney Maree was a man without a country. The South African runner had no passport, just a reentry permit, issued by the U.S. to resident aliens, reading "Stateless." Last Tuesday, however, Maree became a U.S. citizen in Philadelphia's Old Congress Hall. Patriotically dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, and with his American-born wife at his side, Maree joined 38 other petitioners in promising to "foreswear any allegiance to prince or potentate." Maree, 27, can now compete in next month's U.S. Olympic Trials, where he is strongly favored in the 1,500 meters. (He briefly held the world record last summer.)

As a fledging racer on the international circuit in the late '70s, Maree discovered he was trapped in an eligibility nightmare, facing discrimination for both his nationality and his race. The son of a domestic, Maree grew up in a tin shack in the slums outside Pretoria. "I didn't have shoes to go to school," he says. At age 19, he created a sensation when he ran a 3:57.9 mile, setting a national junior record. Such feats earned him recognition and won him a scholarship to Villanova in 1977. A year later he decided to leave South Africa for good. Maree was barred from international competition until he received his green card in 1982.

Passionate in his concern for South Africa, Maree frequently leaves his comfortable ranch house outside Philadelphia and returns to his homeland to visit his mother, for whom he has built a new house. He often addresses white audiences on his visits there. "We are all human beings," he says. "We all have blood, we all aspire, we all cry." Looking back on his struggle both to run and to find a country, Maree notes, "My life has never been smooth. Now with my American passport, I hope it will be easier. Sometimes," he adds, "I think Americans don't know what they have."

A mixed reaction greets Zola Budd in Britain

The jeers rang out in London's Crystal Palace two weeks ago. "Go home you white trash," went one. "You'd be better off dead," went another. Limbering up moments before a 100-meter race, the fleet but fragile-looking target of these taunts burst into tears. Nonetheless, 17-year-old Zola Budd went on to win by about 200 feet and set a new junior record in her adopted country, England. More importantly she qualified for its upcoming Olympic Trials. The International Olympic Committee, however, has yet to decide whether Budd will be permitted to compete for Great Britain in Los Angeles.

Six thousand miles away from the South African dairy farm where she grew up, the 84-pound runner suddenly finds herself the center of a heated international debate over the definition of citizenship and the question of Olympic eligibility. Budd streaked into the limelight last January when, running barefoot as usual, she clocked a time of 15:01.83 in the 5,000 meters, more than six seconds faster than American Mary Decker's world record. Yet as far as the record books were concerned, Budd had accomplished nothing.

At first Budd seemed content to remain in South Africa, an athletic non-person. "If I had to choose between running and staying here," she said in January, "I'd probably stay." But that was before the Daily Mail came along. In exchange for exclusive rights to her story, the right-wing London tabloid set up a trust fund for Budd of close to $300,000 and brought Zola, her coach and her parents to England in late March, stashing them in a secret hideaway. MAIL BRINGS WONDER GIRL ZOLA TO BRITAIN, the newspaper trumpeted. ZOLA GO HOME, answered one rival newspaper.

Ten days after her arrival, Budd was granted British citizenship. (Her paternal grandfather was born in England, and her father holds a British passport.) With more than 60,000 resident aliens awaiting citizenship, Budd's bureaucratic side step was greeted by a storm of protest. Some of Zola's fellow runners weren't all that pleased either. Wendy Sly, for one, until now the country's top female middle distance runner, is threatening to boycott next month's trials if Budd is allowed to run.

The controversy has been hard on the shy meisie (Afrikaans for maid) from Bloemfontein. The youngest of six children born to a semiretired printer, she misses her home and her menagerie, which includes seven dogs, four ostriches, a parrot and a cow. She finds her current predicament mystifying and painful. "I'm not a politician," she says. "I'm just a girl who runs."

From Our Partners