The runners were now nearly perpendicular to where Burnett was stationed on the outside of the track, about 75 meters away from the finish line. As Budd clung to the lead on the inside, she and Decker lightly brushed each other. It appeared to be light contact, run-of-the-mill jostling, but both were thrown off balance.

Decker tried to right herself, but suddenly she was sprawling, then falling, her right hand ripping the bib from Budd’s backside as she landed awkwardly on the track. She rolled onto her back in the infield next to the long-jump pit, grimacing in pain and clutching her left hip while Budd and the others continued on their way. An alert member of the training staff, later identified as Carsandra Taylor, raced across the track to aid Decker.

TV announcer Al Michaels: “Decker falls down! Mary Decker falls down in the infield!”

Burnett was shooting with a 400-millimeter lens as the four leaders came into view at the far turn. He switched to a camera with a shorter, 85-millimeter lens when they passed in front of him. Then came Decker’s fall.

“Once she fell, I grabbed my 400 with the monopod,” Burnett said. “I very distinctly remember telling myself, in a conversation that probably took about one tenth of a second, just make sure you’re focused. Everything was manual focus, obviously, and I just took that extra little moment to make sure it was sharp, and then I shot a sequence of eight or TEN pictures, and then people started crowding around her, and it was over.”

Separated by a few yards from Burnett, Chambers was also firing away. “All I remember is, they came around the back curve and they were really tight,” he said. “I shot one frame of that. I re-focused as they passed me, and that’s when she tripped or tangled and went down. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, Mary Decker’s laying almost directly across from me on the grass.’ I could see out of my left eye that the last-place runner was coming up. So, I waited until she crossed in front of Mary and focused on her contorted face, and that was my lead photograph.” (See Chambers’s photo here.)

Aware of his looming daily newspaper deadline, Chambers sprinted out of the Coliseum even before the race ended. “I didn’t think, ‘Let’s stay and see what happens,’” he said. “I was young, I was excited. I just bolted for the media bus for a ride back to the media center.”

Burnett concedes that Chambers “nailed the collision way better than what I have. His is crystal sharp, and my stuff’s got a little bit of movement in it.”

But by waiting several beats, it was Burnett who captured the iconic shot of the 1984 Olympics: Decker’s expression of inconsolable anguish, framed by the embrace of a compassionate aide.

“[Burnett] had something different,” Chambers said, “and not just because it’s in color. That’s David. He thinks differently than everybody else.”

The race continued with the partisan crowd booing Budd’s every stride. Puicǎ outdueled Sly for the victory, with Canada’s Lynn Williams third. Distraught, bleeding from her ankle, Budd faltered and faded to seventh. She later claimed in her autobiography that she deliberately slowed down so as not to medal.

Other photographers had descended on Decker as she was carried away by Slaney, her fiancée. Budd tried to apologize in the Coliseum tunnel, but Decker stopped her with a curt, “Don’t bother.”

In the immediate aftermath, many — including Decker and ABC track commentator Marty Liquori — blamed Budd for veering to obstruct Decker.

“Zola Budd tried to cut in without being, basically, ahead,” Decker told a packed press conference. “Her foot upset me. To avoid pushing her, I fell. Looking back, I should have pushed her. But the headlines tomorrow would have read, ‘Mary Decker Pushes Zola.’”

The race was over, but the debate raged: Did the inexperienced Budd obstruct Decker’s path by drifting to the inside of the lane? Was Decker, so accustomed to being in the lead, running too close to Budd? Was this simply an unfortunate accident?

The track referee initially disqualified Budd. British officials protested the decision and, after viewing replays from several angles, the IAAF appeals jury reinstated Budd to seventh, ruling that she had not fouled Decker.

Budd left in L.A. in tears. Frustrated and exasperated, Decker left L.A. wondering if she’d ever get another chance at an Olympic medal.


Although both photographers recognized that they’d been in the perfect position to document history, they had to wait for their film to be developed to see the results. Chambers entrusted his roll to a lab tech at the media center. He knew all was well when the tech came out of the darkroom screaming.

With virtually the entire herd of photographers huddled at the finish line, Chambers had scored a major victory for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. “I got doused in champagne and taken out for a steak dinner,” he said. “After the Closing Ceremony, as we were packing up everything, they made me get on one of those rolling carts and walked me through the media center singing [The Kinks’ song] ‘Lola,’ but instead of ‘Lola,’ they were singing, ‘Zola.’”

Burnett had to send his film to Time’s offices in New York City. “We never knew what we had back then,” he said. “You had to wait hours or sometimes days or even weeks before you knew, depending on where you were. Today, in the era of digital cameras, you can look at your camera and see if you got the picture or not.”

He called his editor the next day. “I said, ‘How’s the picture?,’ and she said, ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ and all I could think of was, ‘Crap! It’s only OK?’”

Burnett had to wait nearly 10 days to see the picture in print. The photo of Decker in distress first appeared in the August 20, 1984, edition of Time (with supermodel Cheryl Tiegs on the cover), accompanied by four other pictures.

It was, he admitted, more than OK. “When I finally saw the magazine, I thought, ‘Well, I gotta say, it looks pretty good,’” he said.

As it turned out, Burnett and Chambers were not alone. Rich Clarkson from Sports Illustrated had the entire sequence, but from the opposite end of the Coliseum. The Chicago Tribune’s Bob Langer, photographers Leo Mason and Jean-Claude Delmas, and Allsport’s Tony Duffy captured various elements of the incident, as did a spectator named Hiram Clawson, whose photo appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Perhaps the biggest winner was the Orange County Register. Even though none of their photographers captured “The Fall,” they won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for their Olympic coverage.


The Coliseum contretemps has come to overshadow the careers of both runners involved. Decker didn’t help herself with teary, post-race comments that blamed Budd for what happened. Her reputation irrevocably changed: America’s Sweetheart became America’s Crybaby.

She recovered from her injury, married Slaney, and wrote an apology to Budd. Then, she went out and crushed Budd and Puicǎ in rematches in 1985. That year was her finest on the track. She would go on to battle more injuries, make two other U.S. Olympic teams without winning a medal, and then was controversially accused of doping, with a 1997 IAAF ban that was ultimately upheld. She and Slaney live in Oregon.

Budd, too, never found Olympic glory, even after South Africa was readmitted to the fold in 1992. She also endured a nasty split from her father. Now married and known as Zola Pieterse, she lives in South Carolina.

Only recently have Decker and Budd reconciled. Their story made for Shola Lynch’s moving 2013 documentary Runner. They reunited and jogged together on the Coliseum turf for a new documentary directed by Daniel Gordon, The Fall, which airs this summer on Sky Atlantic. A book by author Kyle Keiderling, Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd, will be published this fall. (Meanwhile, L.A. is one of four candidate cities to host the 2024 Olympics.)

Bruce Chambers shot three other Olympics and was a staff photographer at the Orange County Register for many years. He recently retired from journalism to become a family marriage counselor.

Burnett, now 69, has shot every Summer Olympics since 1984; he is shooting in Rio. He is one of a select few who have earned special photography credentials from the IOC to document the Olympics however they choose.

For Burnett, that has meant eschewing the pack mentality and using unorthodox equipment: everything from a digital Canon to a Mamiya 645 to a Holga to a Speed Graphic camera that photojournalists carried around in the 1950s. The results are nothing short of exquisite. He makes pictures that are timeless and ethereal, original and inimitable.

“In high school and college I thought of myself as a future sports photographer,” he said. “But I never ended up doing much in the way of sports until the Olympics in 1984. So, when I finally got around to doing this, it was like a confirmation that maybe I could be a sports photographer after all.”

A well-curated selection of David Burnett’s sports photography is being shown at the Anastasia Gallery in New York City through Sept. 25. His work is also part of an ambitious and authoritative new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present,” curated by Gail Buckland, through January 8, 2017.


David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku.