The good news is, nobody fell. The bad news is, because nobody fell you had to watch all 3,000 meters.
Decker-Budd II (The Days of Whines and Zolas) may have been advertised to the American public as one of the great match races of our time. But it wasn't even one of the great match races of this week. The catsup races on the Heinz commercials are more competitive.
Decker-Budd III (Mary and Zola Go On A Blind Date With Rambo) may have to be canceled for lack of interest. And you'd better hold off on getting those tickets for Decker-Budd IV (This Budd's For You).
Zola Budd, who'd said earlier this week that she couldn't beat Mary Decker Slaney, went out and proved it. On a chilly night, running inside a stadium that was just half full, with about 8,000 in attendance, Decker beat Budd decisively. Budd, who said after the race that she was "getting used to losing," didn't even finish in the top three, but came fourth after Switzerland's Cornelia Burki and Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen. Budd's time of 8:45.43 was almost 13 seconds slower than Slaney's.
When it was suggested to Slaney after the race that perhaps this wasn't a rematch, but a mismatch, she smiled icily and said, "I don't want to be quoted on that." But a little while later, when she was asked if she was disappointed by the size of the crowd -- most of whose members were so silent they seemed either to have been imported from Mars or driven here just after the library closed -- Slaney said, no, she wasn't. The truth be known, Slaney said, "I'd have stayed home and watched it on TV myself."
It wasn't that the time was bad. Slaney's 8:32.91 was the fastest time over 3,000 meters by a woman this year. As irony would have it, it was slightly more than three seconds faster than Maricica Puica ran on her way to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics -- the race, you'll remember, where Slaney and Budd got tangled up, a replay you have perhaps seen on ABC this week, if not once, then 65,000 times.
But even though her time was good, and she was happy with the way she ran, Slaney knew, as Morales sings in "A Chorus Line," that this whole exercise proved nothing. "The Olympic champion is still Puica, and nothing will change that," Slaney said.
Perhaps if it had been a closer race. Perhaps if Budd were a racer and not just a monotonous runner. For a while there, it almost seemed like it would come off as advertised. Slaney, wrapped ever so tightly in a red, white and blue track suit, went straight to the lead on the inside. And after the first turn, guess who was running second, about 10 yards off the pace? Budd, The Barefoot Contessa, herself.
By the second lap, Slaney's lead was down to five yards, then three yards, then two yards. And by the beginning of the third lap, Budd was right off Slaney's right shoulder, so close she could have been a car in tow. They stayed that way for three laps, Budd on Slaney's shoulder, never quite pulling even; Slaney in the lead, never quite pulling away. It was hard to avoid the feeling that Slaney was playing a cat-and-mouse game with her younger, far more fragile rival, waiting for Budd to make a concerted move, then counter with a big, bold move of her own, one that would break Budd's spirit.
But Budd never made the move.
"I tried," she said, her voice so soft that she hardly seemed to speak at all. "It just wasn't there."
Somewhere in the sixth lap the notion of a match race evaporated as Slaney picked up the pace and Budd couldn't go with her. The distance between them grew so wide so quickly it was reminiscent of Secretariat drawing steadily and impressively away from Sham in the Belmont Stakes. Budd's will seemed to break like a dry twig in the hands of an angry child.
"I think the last two laps were the worst," Budd said. "After the first five laps, it just wasn't there anymore." She said her strategy was "just to keep with the front runners as long as possible, and see what happened at the end."
What happened was, she got to the end a lot slower than Slaney.
But she had a great view.
Budd, who seems even smaller than 5 feet 2, even lighter than 100 pounds, who seems, in fact, like a frightened fawn, said she was "relieved it's over." And it was obvious she was talking about more than just this race.
Slaney, who seems to court public attention and approval with even greater vigor than Budd flees from it, shared the sentiment. "I think all the controversy over the last year has been difficult for me and Zola," she said. "Tonight, we were able to get on the track and people could see that I had no vendetta against her, and that she didn't hate me."
Slaney, who earlier this week said she could forgive, but not forget what she thinks Budd did to her at the Olympics, made a point of going over to Budd before and after the race -- and made a point of telling people that she went over to Budd before and after the race. "I approached her," Slaney said. "I wished her good luck before and I congratulated her after. I don't want her to feel like she should be afraid of me."
Really? Mary Decker Slaney, the toughest thing on wheels, doesn't want a competitor to be afraid of her?
She paused and smiled.
"Not as a person. As an athlete, yes."
So it's finally over, isn't it?
For Budd, it was an exorcism to be gained only through the pain of public execution. She knew, ever since she looked back and saw Slaney sprawled out on that track in Los Angeles, that one day she would have to account for being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- even if it wasn't her fault. She's the winner here tonight. She plays the part of the sacrificial lamb, gets to wipe the slate clean, and gets paid for it, too.
And for Slaney? Is there vindication? In what? In beating a 19-year-old girl who can't even do better than fourth in a field that didn't include any of the Olympic medalists, a crystal figurine of a girl whose eyes seem wide in a perpetual state of fear?
No, Slaney won nothing here, because there was nothing here she wanted. No matter how badly she beat Budd, even if she set a world record in the process, it wouldn't have satisfied her.
"It doesn't prove a thing," Mary Decker Slaney said for all the world to hear. "The Olympic champion is Puica, and nothing will change that."