Nine for IX: Runner (2013)

Directed by Shola Lynch

The competition in sports is often what brings people to them, and what makes them stay for as long as they do. That competitive spirit, or edge, is what motivates and drives a good athlete to higher realms of success. Athletes vary in size and sport, background and upbringing, but what always brings them together is the fire to compete, and ultimately to win. Mary Decker is one of the best athletes in Unites States history. Her specialty was middle distance track and field. Still holding many US records today, she is a track and field legend in America. But how can this be? She never won an Olympic Gold medal. Isn’t that the gauge for a legends. Isn’t that how we judge our athletes, tell which are the best, and which are not? For Mary Decker, her story is a bit different from other legends. For as incomparable as she was an athlete, her struggles often also go unmatched.

Decker began running at a young age, and simply took to it. She was a natural with what has been described as the perfect running form. Making her first national team appearance at the age of 14, she quickly encountered her troubles. In the midst of the Cold War, Decker traveled East with the national team and lost her temper with the baton after she was cut off on the track. This fiery nature would follow her throughout her career. Lucky for her, she was often so much better than her competition that she won easily. Her closest competition was often injury. With too many to count, Decker’s legs, hips and whole body took a beating, often leading to her missing chances at even more success. The world seemed against her even when the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. But when she finally did get her chance, something happened that forever changed the perception of Mary Decker.

In the 1984 games, Decker sought her first chance at Gold after an already decade long career. Her biggest competitor was a barefoot runner from South Africa, Zola Budd, who immigrated to Britain in order to compete (South Africa was not recognized because of Apartheid). Decker was Budd’s idol growing up, but I am sure both of them wish they had never met on the track in the 1500m finals that year at the Olympic Games. The two got tangled up, with Decker going to the ground in a heap, and Decker’s chances at gold were gone. But what followed was more than tears and heartbreak, as the All-American, squeaky clean image of Decker took a hit thanks to her reaction to Budd, and the whole affair. She came off very much so the sore loser. a cry baby. Not only was Decker’s chances at gold gone, but her reputation had taken a hit too.

What this story, and this film, can teach us is perspective. Everyone has their own story, and this was Mary’s. It was trying, harrowing, heartbreaking. I tried to place myself in Decker’s shoes, and searching with as much honesty as I can muster, I am not sure I could have handled myself any differently than Decker. As a competitor, she wanted to win, more than anything else. But often in sport, as in life, we are dealt hands outside of our control. There is only so much we can do on our part to control an athletic event, or life itself. Decker has had the worst of luck, and in that moment snapped as years upon years of hard work and dedication were taken away from her by someone, or something, other than herself. She’s not a crybaby, she’s just a passionate competitor, who loves to run, and loves to run.

We can still learn from Decker, though. Being humble and gracious in defeat is the preferred reaction, as hard as it may be sometimes. But if we ask ourselves why we compete, some greater truth can be found. It is different for each person, I’m sure. But we also seek pleasure and enjoyment. For some of us, the simple thrill of competition is enough. For others anything short of victory is disappointment. Finding that balance between the two, and being able to enjoy life for what it is and what it gives us is essential. Some are better than others, some are more fortunate than others. Mary Decker is a track and field legend, even if she never won gold, even if she was a sore loser in 1984. Some people see that, others might not. C’est la vie.

*** – Good


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