British Sporting Hypocrisy: the Zola Budd Incident and Others

The Olympic motto ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’ is meant to spur the athletes to embrace the Olympic spirit and perform to the best of their abilities.

The Olympic Games ideal is athletes competing in a spirit of competitive endeavour. The Berlin Games, 1936, showed this was nonsense. Hitler used the Olympics as a showcase for Naziism. British female athletic performances in the period 1948-80 were mediocre. Amazingly the jingoistic, anti-immigrant Daily Mail sponsored the South African Zola Budd’s naturalisation so she could compete as a British athlete. Zola held unratified world records because of anti-apartheid sanctions. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government bowed to the Daily Mail’s pressure and Zola was speedily naturalised. She ran for Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The eight Olympic Games prior to 1984 brought a meagre 26 medals for British women. Their performances peaked in Tokyo, 1964, with six medals. Two other Olympics ended with no women’s medals at all. This catastrophic wound to national pride provoked a Daily Mail crusade. The women’s failure in Moscow, when the USA weren’t competing, was too much for the Daily Mail. They demanded Olympic medals.

English Test cricket provided inspiration. The MCC brought in players from South Africa. Tony Grieg, 1977, Ian Grieg, 1982, Allan Lamb, 1982, and Chris Smith, 1983, all became Test match players. Tony Grieg and Allan Lamb subsequently became captains of England. Therefore why shouldn’t Zola Budd do the same for women’s athletics?

Zola Budd’s immigration ‘credential’ was her British grandfather. This was deemed sufficient by immigration officials. They were under pressure from the Daily Mail and, importantly, Margaret Thatcher. Zola was manipulated by her father who, many believe, was bribed to move his family from South Africa. She was an athletic prodigy. As a South African, her World Record in the 5,000 metres wasn’t ratified because of the international anti-apartheid sporting ban. The Daily Mail believed a gold medal was in the bag after a twenty year wait. It wasn’t to be.

In a brutally run 3,000 metres, there were incidents with the American Mary Decker and Zola finished seventh. Only two women have won gold medals at the Olympics since 1984 and both were in ‘full’ Olympics. (The Los Angeles Olympics was boycotted by the Soviet Union and their formidable team were absent.) Even if Zola had won, there would have been question marks about the validity of the success, not by the Daily Mail though. Britain’s lack of gold medal success continued until 2004 when Kelly Holmes won two in the 800 and 1500 metres. She was followed in 2008 by Christine Ohuruogu’s success in the 400 metres.

Feelings about British exceptionalism are rampant when other countries bend or pervert the Olympic ethos but our own history doesn’t bear scrutiny. The notion that gold medals can be ‘purchased’ by bribing the father of a teenage prodigy, is hardly in the Olympic ideal. That the Daily Mail was using Test cricket as a model says everything that needs to be said about the racist administrators of the MCC looking for white cricketers. Luckily our bone fide gold medallists twenty years later were British born and competing in truly competitive Olympics. The Zola Budd affair shows the unpleasant side of British nationalism.


For British failure n the women’s events in the Olympics 1972 and 1974.

For the political atmosphere there was a surge in jingoism in this period flowing from the Falklands War, 1982.

For foreign born English test match players see

Ultimately there were 18 South Africans so these five were simply the beginning. There have been 743 foreign nationals playing for the England Test team up to 2020. Notice the cluster in the early 80s when the apartheid ban was throttling South African sport.

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