Four years after Mary Decker Slaney's bid for a gold medal in Los Angeles came crashing to a halt, she finds herself coming to the defense of the athlete who brought that bid to an end.

Zola Budd, who stepped on Slaney's heels in the 3,000 meters in the 1984 Summer Games, has returned to South Africa in despair after failing to receive permission from Britain to represent that country in this summer's Olympic games at Seoul."One would be naive to think that Zola could successfully separate her running career from current political issues," Slaney said in a prepared statement she read during a news conference promoting today's L'eggs Mini-Marathon in New York.

Slaney said there's no use trying to effect political change through the prohibition of athletes from competition.

"We can all remember how in 1980 the entire U.S. Olympic team was affected by our government's useless attempt to use sport to affect politics," she said.

"Personally, I treat all of those I compete against as athletes. I don't question their political or religious beliefs," said Slaney, adding that she won't question South Africa's system of apartheid.

"I really don't have an opinion. I'm an athlete," she said. "I associate with many people from different parts of the world. And I like them all."

That affection apparently extends to Budd, whose misstep added to Slaney's long list of injuries, both physical and emotional. When asked to recall the moment at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, however, Slaney declined.

"I don't want to relive '84," she said. "It's something I've dealt with. What I'm dealing with now is the 1988 Olympics. I don't have any time to think about what has happened, only what's going to happen."

What Slaney would like to do is return to the Olympics in the 3,000 meters "and finish what I started." She also is considering a bid for the 1,500 meters, but that would depend on how her body would respond.