The Story Behind The Perfect Photo Of Olympic Pain

Photo credit: David Burnett/Contact Press Images
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What does it feel like to have your lifelong dream dashed in an instant? How would you react?

Mary Decker experienced that worst-case scenario at the 1984 Summer Olympics, when America’s most talented and heralded middle-distance runner became entangled with chief rival Zola Budd midway through the 3000-meter finals, causing Decker to lose her balance and fall to the track. Injured and unable to rejoin the race, Decker’s wail echoed throughout the Los Angeles Coliseum as Budd and the other runners in the field continued toward the finish line.

Photographer David Burnett was stationed directly across from the action and squeezed off a series of pictures that that led to the worst moment of Decker’s career. He would be the first to tell you that he snapped the pictures—and THE picture—by happenstance. He was at his first Olympics, that most unwieldy of sporting events for journalists to cover, and he was not really a sports photographer.

Burnett had abandoned a prime position near the finish line, where a mob of photographers had gathered to document what they and 85,000 spectators and an international TV audience expected was going to be the climax of the Games: the duel between Decker, America’s Sweetheart, and Budd, the teen wonder who ran barefoot and had evaded the international ban against South African athletes by snagging a passport to represent Great Britain.

“Sometimes you get lucky,” Burnett said. “I was in the right place at the right time. But I didn’t miss.”

Seemingly out of position, Burnett turned out to be in the perfect spot for Decker’s fall. And, as history appeared in his viewfinder, he didn’t flinch: he captured the dramatic arc of the moment — the women running on the track, their entanglement, and the immediate aftermath — and the iconic reaction shot of Decker as she realized that her Olympic hopes had been destroyed.

The sequence comprises, at once, some of the most stunning action shots in all of sports photography, and one of the most moving portraits of loss.

Burnett likes to say that he “makes a picture” instead of “takes a picture.” At its core, that implies going beyond the immediate news cycle, and who won or lost, to create images that will stand the test of time.

Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Burnett always aspired to be a sports photographer. He shot the requisite pictures of high school and college sports, not to mention racing at the nearby Bonneville Flats drag strip, and admired the work of John G. Zimmerman and George Silk, two of the premier sports shooters of the 1950s and 1960s, back when glossy, well-financed magazines like Sports Illustrated encouraged their photographers to experiment creatively.

Burnett’s career veered from sports to news and he left home to travel the world. He covered the waning days of the Vietnam War for Life Magazine, shot the coup in Chile in 1973, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He photographed every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and shot behind-the-scenes images of a young reggae artist named Bob Marley. In the mid-1970s, Burnett and Robert Pledge co-founded Contact Press Images, a New York City-based photo agency.

In 1984, Time contracted Burnett to help with their coverage of the Los Angeles Olympics. These were the first Summer Olympics in the U.S. since 1932 (also in L.A.), and from the start were out of the ordinary. They were the first privately financed Olympics, with the entire risk assumed by the newly created Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Headed by business executive Peter Ueberroth, the LAOOC adopted a no-frills philosophy and refused to build gaudy new venues or Olympic villages.

As the Opening Ceremony neared, naysayers predicted disaster. Freeway traffic would be hellacious; Southern California’s smog would suffocate the athletes; the cost of hosting the Games would bankrupt L.A.; terrorists would kill spectators. Perhaps the biggest threat was the looming boycott by the Soviet Union and their allies, in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

The boycott was not prevented, of course, a political reprisal that robbed fans of being able to watch the top Soviet, Cuban, and East German athletes compete against the world’s best. (The real losers were the athletes themselves.) But Los Angeles proved the doubters wrong. Athletes from a record 140 nations, including the People’s Republic of China in its first appearance at the summer Olympics since 1952, competed in a record 221 events over an idyllic 16-day period. The weather cooperated, and many businesses adjusted their schedules so that the traffic was smooth sailing. An ambitious, well-organized arts festival drew appreciative audiences, and pin trading became an unofficial Olympic event.

With the host country expectedly dominating the podium (174 total medals, including 83 gold), the 1984 games turned into a victory party. The list of legends who proved themselves in L.A. remains impressive: Carl Lewis, Evelyn Ashford, Edwin Moses, Joan Benoit, Mary Lou Retton, Greg Louganis, Cheryl Miller, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Michael Jordan, Evander Holyfield.

Entering the final weekend of the Games, the race that had captured the imagination not only of the country, but the world, still remained. Along with the hundreds of other credentialed photographers who had descended upon Los Angeles that summer, David Burnett was determined to be there for the action.

It’s difficult for some to recall, but not so long ago track and field was considered a major sport in this country. Daily newspapers and magazines like Sports llustrated covered every important meet, even in non-Olympic years, including the celebrated USA-USSR matchups that served as athletic backdrop to the Cold War. Kenny Moore (himself a former Olympic marathoner) and others were given ample space to write insightful profiles of the top athletes, from decathletes to sprinters to shot putters.

Among the most heavily covered athletes in the 1970s and early 1980s was Mary Decker, who came along as distance running was swelling in popularity, on the heels of Frank Shorter’s marathon gold medal at Munich and, later, the publication of the best-seller The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx. Women runners were relatively new to Olympic events beyond the sprints; 1972 marked the first time they raced beyond 800 meters at the Olympics.

All of five feet tall and 86 pounds, most of which seemed to be braces and pigtails, “Little Mary” Decker grew up in front of the media, beginning with her startling breakthrough in 1973, when as a 14-year-old phenom she upset the Soviet Union’s Nijolė Sabaitė in the 800 in Minsk. As she matured into adulthood, every aspect of her life was dissected, including her vulnerable psyche due to family issues, her short-lived marriage to marathoner Ron Tabb, and her subsequent engagement to British discus thrower Richard Slaney.

At one time she owned every American record from 800 to 10,000 meters, and several world records. Her running style was smoothly efficient. Watching Mary in motion “was like watching a symphony,” her Olympic coach, Brooks Johnson, said in the 2013 ESPN documentary Runner. “Mechanically she was off the charts.”

When healthy, she was unbeatable; she was rarely healthy. Her Achilles heel was the dozens of injuries and operations she endured. As her personal coach, Dick Brown, said in the film: “Knees-up Mary was the best thoroughbred in American running. Knees-down she was scar tissue.”

Her resumé lacked only an Olympic medal. She was too young to qualify for Munich. She watched Montreal on television with her leg in a cast. She was rounding into form for Moscow when Jimmy Carter declared the U.S. boycott.

Decker never quit. During the 1983 season, she showed her mettle by taking the “Double Decker” at the first IAAF World Track and Field Championships, beating the Russians at 1500 and 3000 meters. Her comeback in the 1500 — when she was passed by Zamira Zaytseva and cut off in the home stretch but then surged to overtake Zaytseva — was a portrait of steely determination.

Kodak used the photograph of Decker’s triumph over Zaytseva — and the latter’s desperate faceplant at the tape — in an advertisement with a tagline that would prove prescient in Los Angeles: “A single hairsbreadth can separate triumph from tragedy.”

Decker was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1983. With the Los Angeles Olympics fast approaching, that Decker had grown up in Southern California made her a magnet for sponsors and media coverage. Chicago Tribune reporter Philip Hersh described her as “an American sweetheart and an American sex object.” Now a lithe 5-foot-6 and 108 pounds, most of which was curly brown hair, she was the queen in waiting. Alongside Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses, she was the most anticipated track-and-field athlete before the Games.

Decker considered running the 1500-3000 double in Los Angeles. But after Ruth Wysocki outsprinted her in the 1500 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Decker and Brown decided to err on the side of caution and enter only the 3000, in what was to be the event’s debut at the Olympics. (The distance was a stopgap toward gender equity; it lasted two more Games before being discontinued in favor of the 5000 and the 10,000.)

Without the Soviet threat, Brown figured that Decker’s main competition would come from Romania’s Maricica Puicǎ, two-time winner at the cross-country world championships. But slowly, word trickled out of South Africa about a young phenom who trained by running barefoot in the hills around her family’s farm.

Zola Budd was 17, looked 12, and had a picture of Mary Decker pinned to her wall. Her times were eye-popping; she topped Decker’s world record in the 5000 by more than six seconds in January of 1984.

Budd was similar to Decker when she burst onto the scene: both were tiny, fleet-footed naturals who used running to escape familial strife. But Budd’s running style was awkward; unlike the smooth-striding Decker, she tended to fling her elbows about. And she had zero experience in high-stakes, international racing on the track. So the early reports about Budd were not taken too seriously. After all, she was ineligible for the Olympics because of the longstanding ban against South Africa over the country’s apartheid policy.

Her status changed suddenly after a columnist at the Daily Mail discovered that Budd’s paternal grandfather was English, and through this familial connection she was entitled to apply for a U.K. passport. Which she managed to acquire in record time, paid for by the newspaper in a ballsy bit of gamesmanship aimed squarely at creating controversy and gaining eyeballs.

Dispatched from her sheltered upbringing, Budd never quite comprehended the enmity against her because of her roots. Anti-apartheid demonstrators decried her presence at races and urged her to “Go Home.”

All of which was fodder for the media horde in L.A. that mourned the absence of the U.S.A.-Eastern Bloc, capitalism-communism rivalry of yore. Mary was the “All-American girl” and “the girl next door,” while Zola was the interloper and barefoot curiosity. And, although the anti-apartheid movement was pretty strong in U.S. at the time, the more direct protests came in England, where many believed Budd had exploited a loophole to compete. She was portrayed as a mercenary, un-Olympian. The fact that she was totally naïve about the political situation in South Africa exacerbated the ill will.

Just like that, the race that was supposed to be Decker’s coronation now had a villain.

Journalists covering the Olympic Games face a daunting challenge: Over 16 days in Los Angeles, there were 221 events in 26 different sports, involving nearly 7,000 athletes (5,263 men and 1,566 women) from 140 countries, at nearly 30 far-flung venues sprawling from Anaheim to Inglewood to downtown L.A. to Arcadia to Lake Casitas.

With thousands of credentialed journalists, the race to break a story or to get the best photo was as fierce as any athletic event. “You were competing against everybody, and especially whoever was on your right or left shoulder,” said Dean Musgrove, the assistant photo editor at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper. “You had to stay on your game and not be distracted.”

Los Angeles was the first Olympics for David Burnett, then 37. He found the experience to be equal parts inspiring, exhilarating and dispiriting. The energy was awesome to behold, and working with Time’s staff was gratifying. He and hundreds of other photographers were introduced to the joys of shooting with Fujichrome film after the Japanese film manufacturer, in a coup that devastated longtime Olympic partner Kodak, signed to become an official sponsor in L.A.

But whenever Burnett encountered the throngs of photojournalists armed with the latest in cameras and lenses, invariably massed at the finish line to capture the moment of victory, he cringed. “All of these people had, like, dozens of cameras and remote cameras and dozens of huge lenses and tripods,” he told me. “There wasn’t anything I was going to do standing next to them which would be even remotely as good as what they were going to do.”

Paul Chinn, who covered track and field for the Herald Examiner, learned to show up two hours before the media gates opened to ensure that he got his preferred spot at the Coliseum. As Chinn recalled, “There was always some photographer who would try to drop in at the last minute — either stand right in front or squeeze into the pack — and we’d say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to happen. Move somewhere else.’”

In a search for a unique vantage point, Burnett tried various spots inside the cavernous Coliseum. On one of the first days of track and field events, as Carl Lewis vied for the 100-meter crown, Burnett journeyed high up in the stands near the stadium’s famed peristyle arches. Also perched there was Bruce Chambers, a staff photographer with the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Chambers was shooting primarily in black and white, while Burnett was shooting color. “We stayed there all day,” Chambers recalled. “I remember the light kept changing. I got to know David because he asked me if I had any high-speed color film because, with the light changing, he couldn’t do what he wanted with the film that he had. So, I loaned him some film.”

As Lewis sprinted and leaped to four gold medals, and as Mary Lou Retton vaulted and twisted to the all-around gymnastics crown, media and fans alike awaited the 3000-meter finals. Decker coasted to victory in her preliminary heat, while Budd settled for third in her heat behind the front-runner Puicǎ.

Those three, along with nine other women, met on Friday, Aug. 10, the second-to-last full day of competition. It was the first time that Decker, now 26, and Budd, 18, faced one another on the track.

That afternoon, weary of the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling with the other photojournalists, Burnett decided to take in the action from a different vantage point. He walked toward the tunnel of the Coliseum, about 60 meters from the finish line, where the track transitions from the final turn into the straightaway.

“It was cool because there was room to sit,” Burnett said, “and it was right near where the vendors were walking by, so you could get a bite to eat without having to walk out of the stadium.”

Burnett discovered that several other photographers, including Bruce Chambers, had moved to that vicinity. Chambers had shot wrestling in Long Beach that morning, then driven to the media center in downtown L.A. to drop off his film. His editor told him to go home, but instead Chambers went to the Coliseum.

For a distance race like the 3000, covering seven and a half laps, experienced photographers learned to keep track of how many pictures they’d taken. They didn’t want to come to the end of a roll of film at an inopportune moment.

“The hardest thing was to figure out when do you change film,” Burnett said. “You’re shooting a roll of 36 frames, and if you hold the [motor drive] button down on it you could easily shoot 12, 14, 16 frames on one pass. And, the race doesn’t stop; they’re going to run by you again in 45 seconds.”

Burnett conserved his film as Decker, as was her habit, took the lead from the gun, trailed by Budd and Puicǎ. They remained in that order for the first two laps. With 1,600 meters to go, Budd joined Decker at the front of the pack and the two ran practically side by side, with Puicǎ lurking and Britain’s Wendy Sly bidding to join them.

They approached the Western end of the Coliseum, with Budd edging to the front, Decker second, Sly third and Puicǎ fourth. The crowd was standing now, the excitement swelling, as the four separated from the rest of the field and swept into the turn.

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.