Chapter 7 of Neil Macfarlane’s “Sport and politics – a world divided” recounts how the Daily Mail campaigned for South African athlete Zola Budd to apply for British citizenship during the apartheid era.
Controversially, Budd’s application proved successful – leading to outrage from the political left and the Daily Mail’s rival publications. A mere teenager at the time of her move, Budd was never to be just an ordinary cross country runner.
With the Daily Mail having invested heavily in Budd’s career, they had a major upper hand over rivals such as the Daily Express. This incensed the Express, who often painted Budd’s move to Britain in a negative light.
There are three important lessons to be learned from this story for any aspiring sports journalist: money talks in the industry – often louder than ethics; the media has tremendous power to influence sport; and it will never be far removed from politics.
Perhaps the most famous incident in Budd’s career was her collision with Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics. Afterwards, Budd slowed down, finishing seventh in a race she had looked set to win. She has since admitted that after enduring abuse since her move to the United Kingdom, she had felt unable to endure the abuse she would receive collecting a medal in front of Decker’s angry supporters.
Not only was a publication responsible for Budd’s move to the United Kingdom, but several also deliberately evoked a frenzied reaction to her being in the country. For the Mail, it was to boost readership. For publications such as the Express, it was to criticise the Mail. The ultimate outcome was that Budd ran for Great Britain under immense scrutiny, which severely impacted her psyche.
Although sport is seen by some as an escape from daily life, the same issues that influence the world outside it often influence the sporting world. Sports journalists need to understand the power they have to make or break an athlete’s career – in the same way that political reporters must know that they can swing elections.
The case of Zola Budd should make us all think about what type of sports journalists we would like to be. Professional sport is largely about winning at all costs, and in an industry fuelled by massive sums of money and a deep sense of tribalism, the press are often left as the lone ethical custodians.