Obituary: Florence Griffith Joyner

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WHEN FLORENCE Griffith Joyner stopped the clock at 10.49 seconds during the quarter-final heats of the 100 metres at the US Olympic Trials on 16 July 1988, slicing an incredible 0.27sec off the existing world record, the sport of athletics was obliged to wipe its eyes, dust itself down and acknowledge it had just witnessed a phenomenonal achievement. But the true nature of that phenomenon has been shrouded in suspicion ever since.

The margin by which she broke Evelyn Ashford's record was not only without precedent but way beyond all reasonable expectation for any athlete, let alone a 28-year-old whose previous best before that season had been 10.96sec, outside the top 40 marks of all time. For those inside the sport who, like Carl Lewis, believed Griffith Joyner's achievements were drug-enhanced, that day in Indianapolis was the day the cover was finally blown off a bottomless pit of steroids in athletics that had been festering, possibly for decades. When Ben Johnson tested positive at the Seoul Olympics a few weeks later, it seemed merely confirmation that the dreaded "fourth dimension" had well and truly arrived.

But for many others, "Flo-Jo" was the undisputed new queen of track and field. The long, painted fingernails, which forced her to use her knuckles instead of the tips of her fingers at the start of a race, the ostentatious bodysuits she designed for herself to run in and her sheer grace of movement and physical beauty made her a marketing executive's dream. She raised the profile of women's athletics in general, and turned herself into one of the best-paid sports stars of her generation. Besides which, unlike Johnson, Flo-Jo never failed a drugs test.

The seventh child of 11, Florence Griffith was born in 1959 in Watts, a tough housing projects neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles. Her mother, a teacher, divorced her father and brought her children up to believe in independence and individuality, values that never left Florence. She began running at the age of seven, joining the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, and at 14 won her first title at the Jesse Owens National Youth Games.

She graduated as a straight-A student from Jordan High in 1978 and, after enrolling on a business studies course at California State University in Northridge, she was offered a scholarship to study psychology at UCLA and train under one of the country's leading athletics coaches, Bob Kersee.

In 1980 she made the Olympic trials for the first time, two years later she won National Collegiate titles at 200m and 400m and in the 1984 Olympics, at home in Los Angeles, she won the 200m silver medal. Early in her time in his charge, Kersee said: "She has a burning desire to be successful, but Florence has what I would call a strange burning desire. It was hard for me to understand her, because, with her quietness and her shyness and her beauty, she doesn't really seem like she can have a killing instinct. But, when Florence sets her mind to something, she can get the job done."

After making her mark at the Olympics, Griffith stepped out of the limelight for two years, working in a bank and as a beautician before making a comeback in 1987 when she again won silver in the 200m, this time at the World Championships. She was no longer under the influence of Kersee, by now married to Jackie Joyner, who was to become one of the greatest of all Olympians. It was Joyner's older brother Al, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, who was now coaching Griffith and a few weeks after the World Championships they were married.

That winter she claimed to have worked prodigiously, lifting heavy weights and running long distances, but at her first meeting the following spring, although she appeared a larger version of the previous year's model, a radical improvement in her times was not at once apparent. Then, three weeks before the Olympic trials, she improved her personal best in the 100m to 10.89sec and in the trials first round ran a wind-assisted 10.60 before her historic record run. She won the trials final in 10.61, still the second fastest time, which has only begun to be approached this year by the 22-year-old American Marion Jones, who has won 10.65.

In the Games themselves she swept to victory by wide margins in both sprints, adding an equally astounding 200m world record of 21.34sec to the 100m record she already held; neither time has yet been bettered. A third gold medal in the sprint relay followed, and a silver in the 4x400m relay but the tongues soon started wagging. Ben Johnson's disqualification may have robbed Flo-Jo of the spotlight her achievements merited, but it also saved her from closer scrutiny by the wider public. I sat in the athletes section of the Seoul Olympic Stadium and listened as one of her closest rivals complained bitterly to her companions that Flo-Jo was taking steroids, and not long after the Games Carl Lewis said: "It was a common belief on the track circuit that Florence had used drugs."

When questioned, Griffith Joyner always denied it and said she welcomed the introduction of random-testing. But her failure to take court action against Lewis, and her sudden retirement four months after the Olympics just as random testing was about to be introduced, left her fiercest critics in little doubt.

In 1990 Flo-Jo gave birth to her daughter, Mary Ruth Joyner or "MoJo" to her friends, and the last few years of her life were occupied by an apparently exhausting schedule of designing and modelling clothes, working with under- privileged children through the Florence Griffith Joyner Foundation, acting in the US soap Santa Barbara and NBC's 227, writing a fitness column for a magazine, acting as spokeswoman for a variety of charitable causes and, most recently, being the chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Towards the end of 1995, having finally been inducted in the prestigious athletes Hall of Fame in America, she began to talk about another comeback but in March 1996, on a flight from California to St Louis, she suffered a heart seizure.

Despite, or perhaps because of her achievements, Florence Griffith Joyner remained an enigma to the American people, never allowing her privacy to be compromised even in the face of such a demanding life style. Details of her illness were kept secret and her death on Monday, following a second seizure, came at a time when athletics administrators were considering declaring her fastest time of 10.49 null and void owing to a faulty windspeed reading at Indianapolis.

It is sad to say of anyone, especially one who gave such aesthetic pleasure to millions and who worked so hard at everything she turned her hand to, that her death may make more sense to many than her life in athletics ever did.

Delorez Florence Griffith, athlete: born Los Angeles 21 December 1959; married 1987 Al Joyner (one daughter); died Laguna Beach, California 21 September 1998.