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Zola Budd Pieterse never believed she would become a great runner. It was just something that she loved doing, something that made her feel free. But in 1984, Zola achieved sudden fame when she broke the women’s 5000m world record at the Olympic Games. She also achieved unwelcome fame for her unique barefoot-running style and for the controversy that marked her win.

Instead of tasting the fruits of victory when she crossed the finish line, Zola was sorely reminded of the tumultuous political atmosphere in her country. In 1984, South Africa was excluded from international athletic competitions due to its apartheid policy, and Zola’s time was not ratified as an official world record.

Determined to compete at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Zola applied for British citizenship on the grounds that her grandfather was British. She ran again the following year for Great Britain, beating her own time from the previous year. This time, Zola’s new world record was official.

Zola may have circumvented the sporting boycott placed on South Africans, but she could not escape an overwhelming climate of anger toward her country’s policies when she arrived in Los Angeles for the Olympic Games. Despite this, Zola soldiered on and in 1985 and 1986, she reigned supreme as the World Cross Country Champion. Zola returned to the Olympic track once again in 1992, this time to proudly represent her home country―South Africa.


“For me, mobility means freedom. Not just physical freedom, but also emotional and spiritual freedom.”