Jake Wightman and Wendy Sly, photo by SJA
Wendy Sly with her coach, Neil Taylor, photo: Wendy Sly
Wendy Sly is the 1984 Olympic silver medalist at 3000m. In 1984, the 3000m was to be a battle between USA’s Mary Decker Slaney and GB’s Zola Budd. Apparently, they did not tell Wendy Sly. Wendy took the lead a couple laps after Zola Budd and Mary Slaney went down.
Sly took the lead on the last lap and battled Maricica Puica, with Puica taking the win. Wendy Sly’s medal was overshadowed by what could have been. I always thought that was sad. Wendy Sly had a long career and now advises women athletes who want to challenge themselves. Wendy Sly is one of the finest women distance runners in British athletics.
We hope you enjoy this piece on Wendy Sly by Stuart Weir.
Wendy Sly looks back at the 1984 Olympics
The 1984 Olympic 3000 meters race is one of those races that sticks in the memory but often for the wrong reasons. The local favorite, Mary Decker, fell in a tangle with the British athlete, Zola Budd. The winner was Maricica PuicÄƒ from Romania with Wendy Sly taking the silver.
Zola Budd herself was a controversial character or victim of circumstances. At that time South Africa was banned from participation in the Olympics because of the apartheid regime. Budd, a 17 year-old South African athlete with a British grandfather, was running impressive times. The Daily Mail newspaper campaigned for her to be granted British citizenship with the normal application procedure speeded up to allow her to compete for Britain in the 1984 Olympics.
Wendy Sly had finished second in the 3000m at the 1982 Commonwealth Games and fifth in both the 1500m and 3000m at the 1983 World Championships as well as winning the IAAF World (10,000m) Road Race Championships. So, she was clearly a contender for an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, 1984 did not start well when she sustained a bad ankle injury in April.
Wendy Sly had no animosity towards Budd but had concerns about the implications of Budd’s arrival for British-born athletes – not for herself as she had been pre-selected for the Olympics and had also a quicker time than Budd at 3,000. In the World Championships in Helsinki the previous year, three British Women – Sly, Jane Furniss-Shields and Christine Benning had been finalists in the 3000m so British women’s middle distance running wasn’t in bad shape. And she was far from being the only one who thought it seemed wrong that the Daily Mail had spent all that money importing a medal hope when there was home grown talent around. “All I was doing was trying to protect British athletes from potential non-selection for the Olympics”, Sly explained, “because of the sudden appearance of a ‘foreign’ athlete who had become British in a matter of days really, saying that I didn’t think it was fair on British runners”.
Sly had been training in USA – in an era before internet, cellphones etc – and largely cut-off from the Zola Budd situation back in UK. When she returned to England she found herself drawn into it – “not really Zola but the whole press activity around it. I came back to UK not realizing the controversy that I was coming back into, with some of the press, particularly the Daily Mail, portraying me as the bad witch”. She would go for a run and return to find a crowd of photographers camping outside her door. She adds: “You had to feel sorry for Zola really, just 17, coming to the UK, not speaking English. You can understand her reaction, being told if she came to GB, she could run in the Olympics, a rare opportunity for a South African to run in the Olympics.
The injury, lack of training and the stress of what was going on around her meant that Sly started the season pretty badly. She consulted a sports psychologist, who told her to take control of the situation and to stop letting myself be a victim of circumstances.
She went back to America running 4:08.69 for third place in the Pre “not mind-blowing but at least I felt it was me on the track”. She set up a training camp at Manhattan Beach, California with her then husband, Chris Sly, coach Neville Taylor, Eamonn Martin and his coach, Mel Batty. “Over the next 4-5 weeks”, she recalls, “I got myself into decent shape. I was on a regime of relatively high mileage and got my core fitness back. In an 800m time trial, I ran close to my PR. So by the time I reached the Olympic Village, I knew I was in good shape both physically and mentally. Perhaps physically I wasn’t as good as in 1983 but mentally I was in a good place so was able to make the best of the fitness that I had”. She was confident that she could be in the medals.
Wendy Sly finished third in her Olympic heat in 8:58.66. Mary Decker won her heat in 8:44.38, a new Olympic record, which lasted about half an hour until PuicÄƒ broke it in the third heat. Sly recalls being happy with her performance: “I had run comfortably in the heats and I’d watched Mary run pretty hard in the heats, perhaps buoyed up by the crowd”.
Sly stepped on the start line for the final, two days later, “quietly confident that only I could mess it up. I knew that I had to make the most of the opportunity, being in an Olympic final and in that kind of shape. After four laps of the race Budd led from Decker with Sly and PuicÄƒ just behind as that group of four had broken away. Decker and Budd clashed leaving Decker on the ground. Decker was out of the race and Budd was soon dropping back (to finish 7th). Sly was also shocked that the crowd was booing as she and PuicÄƒ fought it out, as if Decker’s fall was their fault. Sly led at the bell but was overtaken by PuicÄƒ with 200 meters to run. The Romanian set another Olympic record (8:35.96) with Sly second in 8:39.47.
Sly sums up the race: “At the time I was very excited to have achieved what I could achieve. I was disappointed to have missed out on the gold, probably due to a misplaced effort with two laps to go. I tried to run as fast as I could for the last two laps and perhaps I ran a bit too hard for the first part of that. Thinking that Mary have gone off – I didn’t actually see her on the infield at all – I felt I had to run as fast as I could. So, I was initially disappointed that I hadn’t won gold”.
Sly recalls clearly her meeting with the British press after the race. Expecting to be congratulated on her silver medal, the first British woman middle distance medallist since Ann Packer in 1964, she was surprised that the first question was: “did you see what happened?” Now “older and wiser I’m just grateful that people remember it at all! I’m not Olympic champion, I didn’t win gold so I feel grateful and privileged that people can still remember the race and me running”.
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