1984 was the year that I matriculated. It’s also the title of George Orwell’s book that was part of our English curriculum somewhere along the line. And it was the year that the South African runner Zola Budd took part in the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Officially, of course, she represented Great Britain, on the basis of having a British grandfather. At that time South Africans were sanctioned from most international sport, which meant that the official bodies refused to recognise her world record time for the women’s 5000m. She had achieved this earlier in 1984 – at the age of 17 – and she ran barefoot, so she was something of a sensation.
I saw a money-making opportunity in her Olympics participation; specifically in the form of taking bets from my fellow pupils. I may have given just a little consideration to the likelihood that I was not going to be running a balanced ‘book’, but I did it anyway. Bets were going to be laid on one runner only. It was the school against me.
So, I priced up the field and for the days leading up to the event just about every teacher allowed me a couple of minutes at the start of class to chalk my odds on the board and take bets. The boys couldn’t get enough of Zola, at odds that couldn’t have been generous. I was becoming nervously aware of the extent of my loss should Zola even finish in the medals.
I’ll never forget my physical state as I sat, in the middle of the night, listening to the live radio commentary. My heart felt as if it was in danger of thumping its way right out of my chest. My mouth was dry and my hands were shaking, not helped by the fact that Zola was in the lead for much of the race. It was a seminal broadcasting moment in my life. Others may talk of listening to radio casts of the first moon landing, or the Rumble in the Jungle. I, aged 17, was listening to Zola Budd in the Women’s 3000m finals of the Olympic Games.
Whatever the cause, Zola couldn’t maintain the pace. She eventually faded, in the process saving me from teenaged financial ruin. Only one person bet on the eventual winner, Maricica Puică.
Whether my teachers were caught up in the excitement of Zola’s Olympics, just bemused, or genuinely supportive of my entrepreneurial activity, I don’t know, but I’ve always admired my alma mater for the various ways in which independent thinking – and action – were encouraged. It wasn’t much like 1984 at all.