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Mary Decker: Wendy Sly's silver limelight thief

Olympic Dreams poster

Written by : published Wednesday 9th November 2011

Mary Decker: Wendy Sly's silver limelight thief main image

Having watched before her feats of Olympic gold, history and controversy, the long-stretching shadow of an exhausted Wendy Sly crossed Los Angeles’ Olympic Stadium finishing line, closely followed by a life of anonymity.

Her silver medal-winning performance was but to forever be billed as merely the conclusion to what had happened within the preluding 3000 metres.

The controversial connection of Zola Budd’s foot and Mary Decker’s leg transformed any future memories of Los Angeles 1980 from the triumph of Sly’s silver medal to the devastation of Decker’s descent to the amber asphalt.  

At 1690 metres, the most anticipated long-distance race of the calendar was gathering momentum as four sun-soaked athletes broke from the pack, each eyeing a place on the podium.

Were it not for that bare left foot making contact with athletics’ leading female competitor, Sly’s accomplishment may have took centre stage.

It was at 1700 metres that the moment of contact came between Budd – the shoeless South African-born runner, whose representation of Britain was questioned immeasurable during the build-up to the games – and Decker, American sport’s leading lady and gold medal guarantee.

“When I walked off the track, I was stopped by a well-known journalist,” explained Sly, “who asked, ‘Wendy, what happened?’ Not Congratulations, not well done or how was the race for you? The way the media dealt with me was quite disrespectful.”

“After the event, everybody was focused on the collision between Zola and Mary Decker in the race.”

Sly may be the least famous silver-medallist in Olympic history – and Decker the most famous ‘DNF’ – but accusations that her medal was won by only “luck” seems harsh.

No-one can deny her the fact that, of all the women on the planet, only one blonde explosive turn of speed beat her to the final line.

Maricia Puica had created Romanian athletic history, but nothing would deny Decker of her guaranteed headlines.

The distance runner duly stole the front and back pages of publications across the world, leaving Sly to melt quietly away into the background.

In fact, Sly felt not able to portray her talent for what it was until March the following year. The athlete again beat her controversial foe, this time across ten kilometres in Phoenix.

“Everybody said it was only by luck that I had won the Olympic medal. I knew I deserved the medal and by beating her I proved to myself that at that moment in time I was a better runner than her.”

Sly, now 51, is part of a private management company run by another British athletics legends in Sebastian Coe.

She can boast to being one of the most respected and knowledgeable in the magazine marketing area that she majors in.

Although still not remembered for her silver medal run, performances such as the one in Phoenix meant that Sly was able to come out of the shadows of anonymity and be portrayed as the truly talented athlete she was. 

About the author Joe Smith

Joe Smith

My name is Joe Smith and I currently attend the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, England. I am in the first year of a Sports Journalism BA Hons degree with a view to becoming a professional sports journalist at a national newspaper. I help with the running of Caistor Town Cricket Club's website and also contribute to WriteAngleMedia, a company associated with various midalnds-based newspapers, reporting on semi-professional (non-league) football matches. My top three sports are cricket, football and tennis, closely followed by rugby league. I follow many sports teams, but  my favoured clubs are: Grimsby Town (football/soccer), Lancashire County Cricket Club and Huddersfield Giants (rugby league).

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