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Athletics: Downfall of a man quick to accuse

Sprinter Darrell Robinson suffered for his outspoken views. By Gerard Wright in Los Angeles
THE WORLD may have looked at Florence Griffith Joyner as she rewrote the record books at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and wondered. A year later, that wonder was replaced by suspicion, or perhaps certainty.

The cause of that attitudinal shift was a former schoolboy athletic prodigy, who had once held the 400 metres world junior record. Darrell Robinson was only rarely able to translate talent into results. Despite being ranked third in the world in the 400m, he never made an Olympic team. The closest he got to such international recognition was a bronze medal at the inaugural Goodwill Games, in Moscow, in 1986.

Soon enough, that recognition was his, although it took the form of notoriety and when it did, in effect ended his career. In 1989, a manhunt was on in the international media. Ben Johnson had been pinned and disgraced as a steroid user and had lost his Olympic gold medal for it.

The German magazine Stern had an even bigger target in its sights, Carl Lewis. In a paid interview with the magazine, Robinson claimed he was present when Lewis had injected himself with a milky white substance. By way of added value, he also claimed that he had sold Human Growth Hormone to Florence Griffith Joyner. In a subsequent confrontation on Good Morning America, Griffith Joyner repeated her denial of Robinson's charges, calling him a "lying lunatic". He claims he was virtually blackballed from the European track circuit for making those accusations. Even so, in interviews since then, he continued to stand by his claims.

When Griffith Joyner died at her Los Angeles home last week, the cause of death was listed as "heart failure", a term that has no medical meaning. Somewhere else in LA, Darrell Robinson is still trying to resume a confused and troubled life. His revelations in 1989 virtually spelled the end of his competitive career. He was 25, with a history of family problems, although they would be as nothing compared to what he was to endure.

He had three children by three different women. One of them, a two year- old son, was beaten to death by his mother in California. Another, a daughter, was taken out of his life in 1991 and across the border to Canada. When he tried to take her back, he was charged with assault and abduction, and was held in jail for five months.

"I write [to] her every month," he said of his daughter, Tshalaine. "I send a letter and it gets sent back to me. Tshalaine was everything to me. She was my world. She became my motivation. Everything I did for her."

An article in the Los Angeles Times in early 1996 detailed Robinson's response to his plight. "I just didn't know where I was going," he said. "I was treading water, trying to find somewhere to go. Everything was collapsing around me."

Robinson had lived in Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Back home in Tacoma, Washington, he had been seeing a psychiatrist and had told her he could see no way out of what his life had become.

In March 1996, Robinson made two serious attempts to follow that threat through. An attempt to gas himself with carbon monoxide in his girlfriend's car was unsuccessful. After several hours' further thought, he drank two- thirds of a jug of anti-freeze. It tasted sweet and syrupy, he said in a later interview, with a bitter aftertaste.

He was found, slumped in the front seat of the car, shortly after, lapsing in and out of consciousness. Somehow he survived a dose of poison which doctors said would have killed an average man.

Initially, he was reunited with his family. "We've never been this close," he said, a month after his suicide attempt. "It's been so long since I've been in a room with my family. I can't think of the last time everyone was together."

There may have been a reason for that. Soon after, Robinson fled from a car driven by a member of his family when it stopped at an intersection in Seattle. He rang a recent acquaintance and stayed with him for a week. The acquaintance described him as "lucid and smart", but also "the most downtrodden figure you could imagine".

Others who have met him also describe Robinson as exceptionally charming. Once again, that charm has led him down another path in life. He is now believed to be married to Lisl Hager, a 23-year-old former member of the US skiing team. The union apparently took place without the knowledge or consent of Hager's family, who live in the California resort city of Lake Tahoe.

Darrell Robinson wants to be left alone. As soon as someone finds his pager number, or unlisted home number, it is changed. What he thought of Florence Griffith Joyner's premature death remains a mystery, as does the outcome of his battles with his own demons.