Mary Decker

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Mary Decker
Mary Decker 1982.jpg
Decker in 1982
Personal information
Birth nameMary Teresa Decker
Born (1958-08-04) August 4, 1958 (age 64)
Bunnvale, New Jersey, U.S.[1]
Height168 cm (5 ft 6 in)[1]
Weight51 kg (112 lb)
SportMiddle distance running
Event(s)800–5000 m
ClubAthletics West, Eugene[1]
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s)800 m: 1:56.90 (1985)
1500 m: 3:57.12 (1983)
Mile: 4:16.71 (1985)
3000 m: 8:25.83 (1985)
5000 m: 15:06.53 (1985)
10,000 m: 31:35.3 (1982)[2]

Mary Teresa Slaney (formerly Tabb, née Decker, born August 4, 1958) is a retired American middle-distance runner. During her career, she won gold medals in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters at the 1983 World Championships, and was the world record holder in the mile, 5000 meters and 10,000 meters. In total, she set 17 official and unofficial world records, including being the first woman in history to break 4:20 for the mile. She also set 36 US national records at distances ranging from 800 meters to 10,000 meters, and has held the US record in the mile, 2000 meters and 3000 meters since the early 1980s, while her 1500 meters record stood for 32 years. In 2003, she was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.[3]

Early life[edit]

Mary Decker was born in Bunnvale, New Jersey. A decade later her family moved to Garden Grove in Southern California, where Decker started running. A year later, aged 11, she won her first local competition.[citation needed]

She joined her school athletics club and a local track club, and completely immersed herself in running, for which she would pay an injury-laden price later in her career. At age 12, she completed a marathon and four middle- and long-distance races in one week, ending the week with an appendectomy operation.[citation needed]


In her early teens, Decker was already recognized as a world-class runner. Unable to attend the 1972 Olympics as she was too young, the pigtailed 89 pounds (40 kg) 14-year-old nicknamed "Little Mary Decker", won international acclaim in 1973 with a win in the 800 meters at a US-Soviet meet in Minsk, beating the reigning Olympic silver medallist, Nijolė Sabaitė.[citation needed]

By the end of 1972, Decker was ranked first in the United States and fourth in the world in the 800 meters.[citation needed] In 1973 she gained her first world record, running an indoor mile in 4:40.1. By 1974, Decker was the world Indoor record holder with 2:02.4 for 880 yards, and 2:01.8 for 800 meters.

By the end of 1974, she had developed a case of the muscle condition compartment syndrome. This resulted in a series of injuries, which meant that she did not compete in the 1976 Olympics, because of stress fractures in her lower leg. In 1978 she had an operation to try to cure compartment syndrome, which kept her out of competition for a period.[citation needed] After recovering from surgery, she spent two seasons at the University of Colorado at Boulder on a track scholarship.[4][5] In 1979, she became the second American woman (the first was Francie Larrieu) to break the 4:30 mile in American record time.[6] Decker was the first woman to break the 4:20 barrier for the mile in 1980 when she ran it in 4:17.55. However, this time was never ratified by the IAAF.[citation needed] She did not compete at the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the American boycott. She did however receive one of 461 Congressional Gold Medals created especially for the US athletes.[7]

In 1981 she married fellow American distance runner Ron Tabb. The couple divorced in 1983.[8] In 1982, under the name Mary Tabb, she ran the mile in 4:18.08, breaking the official record of 4:20.89 by the Soviet Lyudmila Veselkova. This time was ratified.

Career peak[edit]

In 1982 Decker-Tabb set six world records, at distances ranging from the mile run to 10,000 meters. She received the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States.

The following year she achieved the "Double Decker,"[9] winning both the 1500 meters and 3000 meters events at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Her history of relatively easy wins in the United States left her tactical abilities suspect in Helsinki, as she chose not to run in close order because so few athletes could keep up with her, a situation that the Soviet runners hoped to use to their advantage. Her wins against Soviet World Record holders proved a redemption of her competitive guile. After her double win she won the Jesse Owens Award from USA Track and Field and Sports Illustrated magazine named her Sportsperson of the Year.[1] Shortly before her World Championship victories, Decker improved her U.S. 1500 meters record to 3:57.12 in Stockholm on July 26, 1983. This record stood for 32 years until Shannon Rowbury ran 3:56.29 on July 17, 2015.

The 1984 Olympic incident[edit]

Decker leading the 3000 m final at the 1984 Olympics, with Zola Budd and Wendy Sly to her right, and Maricica Puică just behind to her left

Decker was heavily favored to win a gold medal in the 3000 meters run at the 1984 Summer Olympics, held at Los Angeles. In the final, barefoot runner Zola Budd, representing Great Britain, had been running side by side with Decker for three laps and moved ahead. In an attempt to put pressure on Budd, Decker remained close by in a crowded space. Decker stood on Budd, then shortly after, collided with the barefoot runner and fell spectacularly to the curb, injuring her hip. As a result, Mary Decker did not finish the race, which was won by Maricica Puica of Romania (Budd finished seventh). Decker was carried off the track in tears by her boyfriend (and later, husband), British discus thrower Richard Slaney. At a press conference she said that Budd was to blame for the collision. While it is generally the trailing athlete's responsibility to avoid contact with the runner ahead, it is also an accepted convention among most distance runners that the leader be a full stride ahead before cutting in. International track officials initially disqualified Budd for obstruction, but she was reinstated just one hour later once officials had viewed films of the race. Despite being behind Budd, Decker's claim that Budd had bumped into her leg was supported by a number of sports journalists. The claim was not accepted by the director of the games or the IAAF.[10]

Decker and Budd next met in July 1985, in a 3000 meters race at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London, England. Decker won the race, and Budd finished in fourth place. After the race, the two women shook hands and made up. Decker later went on record as claiming that she was unfairly robbed of the LA 3000 meters gold medal by Budd, but said many years after the event "The reason I fell, some people think she tripped me deliberately. I happen to know that wasn't the case at all. The reason I fell is because I am and was very inexperienced in running in a pack."[11]

Decker had a successful 1985 season, winning twelve mile and 3000 meters races in the European athletics calendar, which included a new official world record for the women's mile of 4:16.71 in Zurich (Natalya Artyomova's 4:15.8 in 1984, not being ratified by the IAAF). Since that race in 1985, her time has only been bettered on four occasions. That race in Zurich also matched her with both of the other principle athletes from the Olympic race, Slaney vanquishing both Puica and Budd who themselves ran times that until July 9, 2017, also ranked in the top 10 of all time.[12]

Decker at the 1988 Olympic trials

She sat out the 1986 season to give birth to her only child, daughter Ashley Lynn (born May 30, 1986), then missed the 1987 season due to injury. She qualified for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, competing at 1500 meters and 3000 meters, but finished in 8th and 10th respectively, failing to win a medal. She did not qualify for the 1992 Games.

Doping controversy[edit]

In 1996, at the age of 37, as she qualified for the 5000 meters at the Atlanta Olympics, a urine test taken in June at the Olympic Trials showed a testosterone to epitestosterone (T/E) ratio greater than the allowable maximum of six to one.[13] At the time of the positive test Decker was being coached by Alberto Salazar.[14]

Decker and her lawyers contended that the T/E ratio test is unreliable for women, especially women in their late 30s or older who are taking birth control pills. In the meantime, Decker was eliminated in the heats at the Olympics.[4]

In June 1997, the IAAF banned Decker from competition. In September 1999, a USATF panel reinstated her.[15][16] The IAAF cleared her to compete, but took the case to arbitration. In April 1999, the arbitration panel ruled against her, after which the IAAF – through a retroactive ban, even though she was cleared to compete – stripped her of a silver medal she had won in the 1500 meters at the 1997 World Indoor Championships.[17][18]

In April 1999, Decker filed suit against both the IAAF and the U.S. Olympic Committee which administered the test, arguing that the test is flawed and cannot distinguish between androgens caused by the use of banned substances and androgens resulting from the use of birth control pills.[19] The court ruled that it had no jurisdiction, a decision that was upheld on appeal.[20]

The (T/E) ratio test has seen its standards tightened to a 4:1 ratio, instead of the previous 6:1 ratio, and laboratories now also run a carbon isotope ratio test (CIR) if the ratio is unusually high.[21]

Later life[edit]

Throughout her later career, Decker had suffered a series of stress induced fractures. After the loss of her 1999 legal case, she agreed to have a series of more than 30 orthopedic procedures, mainly on her legs and feet, in an attempt to enable her to run competitively in marathons. However, after the surgeries she continued to experience injuries. As a result, she retired with her husband to a 55-acre (22 ha) property in Eugene, Oregon, where she jogs every other day.[22]

International competitions[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Event Notes
Representing  United States
1979 Pan American Games San Juan, Puerto Rico 1st 1500 m 4:05.7
1983 World Championships Helsinki, Finland 1st 1500 m 4:00.90
1st 3000 m 8:34.62
1984 Olympic Games Los Angeles, United States DNF 3000 m 8:44.32 (heat)
1985 Grand Prix Final Rome, Italy 1st 3000 m 8:46.38
1988 Olympic Games Seoul, South Korea 8th 1500 m 4:02.49
10th 3000 m 8:47.13
1991 Grand Prix Final Barcelona, Spain 2nd Mile 4:28.35
1996 Olympic Games Atlanta, United States 21st (h) 5000 m 15:41.30
1997 World Indoor Championships Paris, France DQ (2nd) 1500 m 4:05.22
(h) Indicates overall position in qualifying heats. DNF = did not finish. DQ = disqualified.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Evans, Hilary; Gjerde, Arild; Heijmans, Jeroen; Mallon, Bill; et al. "Mary Decker-Slaney". Olympics at Sports Reference LLC. Archived from the original on April 18, 2020.
  2. ^ Mary Slaney at World Athletics
  3. ^ Mary Slaney (Decker) at USA Track & Field Hall of Fame
  4. ^ a b MacDonald, Jamie (November 29, 1999). "Mary Decker Slaney, Track and Field". Sports Illustrated for Women. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  5. ^ Taylor, Susan Champli (September 29, 1986). "Mary Decker Takes a Run at Happiness with Husband Richard Slaney". Retrieved June 13, 2010.
  6. ^ Chronological Listing of U.S. Women Who Have Broken 4:30 in the Mile as of May 5, 2013[permanent dead link].
  7. ^ Caroccioli, Tom; Caroccioli, Jerry (2008). Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Highland Park, Illinois: New Chapter Press. pp. 243–253. ISBN 978-0942257403.
  8. ^ "Mary Decker Takes a Run at Happiness with Husband Richard Slaney". Archived from the original on July 22, 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  9. ^ "Covers". CNN.
  10. ^ Evans, Hilary; Gjerde, Arild; Heijmans, Jeroen; Mallon, Bill; et al. "Athletics at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games: Women's 3,000 metres". Olympics at Sports Reference LLC. Archived from the original on April 17, 2020.
  11. ^ Parker-Pope, Tara (August 1, 2008). "An Olympic Blast From the Past". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  12. ^ One Mile – women – senior – outdoor. Retrieved on October 9, 2016.
  13. ^ Litsky, Frank (April 14, 1999). "TRACK AND FIELD; Slaney Suing the I.A.A.F. In Dispute Over a Drug Test". The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  14. ^ LONGMAN, JERE (May 1, 1996). "TRACK AND FIELD; Slaney Tries New Approach to Olympic Quest". The New York Times. Retrieved August 14, 2012.
  15. ^ "Athletes Unretiring: The Comeback Kids". Business Week. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  16. ^ "Runner still feels regret over 1984 Olympics wipeout". Taipei Times. Reuters. July 25, 2009. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  17. ^ Rowbottom, Mike (April 27, 1999). "Athletics: Slaney doping ban upheld at IAAF hearing". The Independent. London. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  18. ^ Mark Butler (ed.), "DOPING VIOLATIONS AT IAAF WORLD INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS" (PDF), IAAF Statistics Book – World Indoor Championships SOPOT 2014, IAAF, pp. 47–48, retrieved September 27, 2015
  19. ^ Yesalis, Charles (2000). Anabolic steroids in sport and exercise (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics. p. 367. ISBN 978-0-88011-786-9.
  20. ^ "Mary Decker Slaney, Plaintiff-appellant, v. the International Amateur Athletic Federation and the United States Olympic Committee, Defendants-appellees, 244 F.3d 580 (7th Cir. 2001)". Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  21. ^ Cotton, Simon (March 1, 2010). "Five rings good, four rings bad". Education in Chemistry. Vol. 47, no. 3. Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  22. ^ Gene Cherry (July 28, 2009). "Mary Slaney still yearns to run". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved May 27, 2010.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Women's mile world record holder
26 January 1980 – 12 September 1981
9 July 1982 – 9 September 1982
21 August 1985 – 10 July 1989
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Lyudmila Veselkova
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Maricica Puică
Succeeded by
Awards and achievements
Preceded by United Press International
Athlete of the Year

Succeeded by
Sporting positions
Preceded by Women's 5.000m Best Year Performance
Succeeded by
Preceded by Women's 3.000m Best Year Performance
Succeeded by