Success and failure are separated by the finest of margins in all competitive sport, nowhere more so than track and field athletics. British filmmaker Daniel Gordon’s enthralling, well-considered and finely-balanced sports doc The Fall takes as its centrifugal starting point an immovable fork in the road. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics the women’s 3000m title was, to all intents and purposes, a two horse race. It would be won by either the USA’s golden poster girl Mary Decker or Zola Budd, a barefoot-running young pretender of South African origin who had been granted British citizenship only weeks previously in order to compete thanks to political wrangling by the perennially unscrupulous Daily Mail.
Whipped into delirium by excitement and expectation, the cacophonous home crowd inside LA’s Memorial Coliseum fell to silence and then a chorus of boos when a tangle of legs saw Decker hit the deck and Budd, bemused, continue to the finish line, ending up sixth. It was a momentous split second in sports history that irrevocably stamped a mark on the lives and careers of two of the greatest female athletes of all time. There are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes to the true story told in The Fall that contribute a degree of conjecture, regret and remorse to a traumatic period and emotions that the passage of time has evidently not buried too far below the surface. Talking head interviews are split between the principle subjects and those close to them, the film’s structure offering equal representation and no sense of condemnation either way.
Who was at fault for the infamous trip is not the point of debate, rather Gordon seeks to offer a perspective on the lead up to and consequences of the titular fall and that without the furore that surrounded the event that the young women could have been kindred spirits. Both fiercely driven and dedicated, library footage, photographs and testimony from their developmental years chart each girl’s rise to fame but also the troubled upbringing they shared. Budd’s father was tyrannical, looking to milk his daughter’s talent for financial benefit. She also lost two siblings at an early age, the resultant anger the catalyst for her training. Decker, from a broken home, flew the nest and her mother’s abusive partner and was obsessive to the point of petulance. Budd, having obtained her British passport, was able to skirt South Africa’s long-standing ban on international competition due to Apartheid.
The Fall effectively portrays how she was simply a petrified, overawed and exploited young girl, yet at the time hailed as a pariah, thrown into a toxic racial debate which she neither endorsed nor understood. Adversaries pitted against one another more by frenzied press vultures and political circumstances than personal antipathy or competition, only as the film enters its final lap do Decker and Budd reunite at the scene of the crime some thirty years later. It may conclude on a relatively peaceful note but the preceding turmoil makes The Fall a standout sports documentary rooted in a tempestuous time and place.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens