Athletics: Flo-Jo's flamboyant life and times

Death of a champion: American sprinter who could never dispel rumours of drug abuse dies at the age of 38
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOMETHING CURIOUS happened when Florence Griffith Joyner, who died yesterday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 38, won the l988 Olympic 200 metres title in a startling world record of 21.34 seconds.

Hardly anyone clapped.

There was a similarly awkward feeling in athletics circles yesterday as the sport tried to take in the sad and premature death of a triple Olympic gold medallist, whose name is likely to remain in its record books for a long while yet.

Griffith Joyner, the wife of the 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medallist, Al Joyner, and sister-in-law of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the world heptathlon record holder, had been a good athlete up until the 1988 Seoul Games, winning 200m silver medals at the 1984 Olympics and at the 1987 World Championships. But in 1988, at the age of 28, she became an extraordinary athlete. At the US Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she annihilated the 100m world record of her fellow American, Evelyn Ashford, reducing it from 10.76sec to 10.49. Even taking into account serious doubts which were raised over whether equipment had failed to register an illegally strong tail wind, it was an astonishing reduction.

Only this year has any athlete even approached that mark - another American sprinter, the prodigiously talented 22-year-old Marion Jones, who has a best of 10.65. Griffith Joyner ran the three fastest 100m times ever by a woman and also set a US record in the 200m.

"Flo-Jo", as she had come to be known, went on to dominate the sprint events at the Seoul Olympics in similar fashion. In the 100m final, she took the gold in a wind assisted time of 10.54sec, and she broke the world 200m record twice, leaving it at the point where it stands today. No one since has broken 21.60.

The suspicion that the dramatic improvement which occurred so late in her career was drug assisted was one that was widely held - although Griffith Joyner always denied it emphatically, and said she had never failed a drugs test. Something else appeared to have changed with Griffith Joyner in 1988 apart from her speed - she was noticeably more muscular in build, despite the fact that she was also flamboyantly colourful in her appearance.

She answered extensive questioning at the time from a press corps already pre-occupied with the subject of doping abuse after the disqualification of Canada's Ben Johnson when a positive doping test was taken following his world record breaking win in the 100m. Flo-Jo explained the changes by saying that she subjected herself to an exhaustive regime of physical training.

The seventh in a family of 11 children brought up by a divorced mother in the notorious Watts suburb of Los Angeles, Griffith Joyner always seemed to be seeking the world's attention.

In the 1987 World Championships she ran the first two rounds in a skintight bodysuit similar to that used by speed skaters, complete with a hood. The following year her costumes were even more eye-catching - one was a purple body suit with a turquoise bikini brief over it, but with nothing on her left leg -- a design she referred to as a "one-legger". At the 1988 Olympics, she arrived with finger nails six inches long and carefully decorated. She painted three of them red, white and blue, and the fourth gold to signify her goal. On this occasion, all her goals were achieved - but four months later, at a tearful press conference, she announced her sudden retirement.

This news came at a time when the sport was clamping down on drug abuse following the furore which Johnson's fall from grace had aroused world- wide. Athletics needed to be a sport that was seen to be clean.

In the 90s Griffith Joyner spoke about making a come back as a 400m runner and - bizarrely - a marathon runner. Neither ambition was realised. Others were. She had a child, Mary Ruth, who was swiftly dubbed Mo-Jo by the media. Her biography talked about her achievements as an actress - in the American TV soap opera Santa Barbara and NBC's 227 - sports commentator, painter, author of children's books, clothing designer and businesswoman.

She also devoted much time to little league track teams and established the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation, a non profit making organisation to help disadvantaged youth. She was chosen by President Bill Clinton to replace Arnold Schwarzenneger as chair of the President's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports. She pledged herself to helping Americans trim fat off their diets and encouraging healthy exercise. In 1995, she launched her first exercise home video entitled Flo-Jo Work Out - Mind, Body and Spirit.

Ironically there were serious worries about Griffith Joyner's own health in the years before she died. In 1996, she suffered a seizure during an aeroplane flight from California to St Louis. She was hospitalised for a day, and the family requested that no other details be released. At that time, accompanied by her husband and daughter, she was en route for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Relays for high school athletes.

Yesterday Greg Foster, the three-times world champion high hurdler, said: "We lost one of the great track and field athletes in history. She is going to be missed. It's definitely a shock, a great loss."

The president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Primo Nebiolo, hailed Griffith Joyner as an extraordinary athlete. "It is a great shock and makes me extremely sad," he said in a statement released in Paris.

"I will never forget this extraordinary athlete who stunned the world in Seoul, 10 years ago, with her amazing sprints and spectacular outfits. Sadly, her life has passed as rapidly as her races.

Griffith Joyner, who was voted the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for 1988, and previously won the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, was praised by the president of the US Olympic Committee, Bill Hybl. "The Olympic family is saddened and stunned by her passing," he said. "She was a role model for girls and young women in sports, and her legacy will be one that includes kindness and an interest in children."

While much of that tribute may be true, the circumstantial evidence points strongly to the fact that girls and young women in sports should be careful about adopting this particular champion as a role model.


1959 Born Delorez Florence Griffith in Los Angeles, 21 December.

1982 While at University of California and Los Angeles, won National Collegiate Athletics Association titles at 200 metres and 400m.

1984 Won 200m silver at Los Angeles Olympics.

1987 Won 200m silver at World Championships plus gold in sprint relay. Married Al Joyner, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, in October.

1988 Set 100m world record in quarter-finals of US Olympic trials with a time of 10.49 seconds, and US record 21.77sec for 200m.

At Olympics in Seoul, won 100m with wind-assisted 10.54, then broke two world records in 200m, with 21.56sec in semi-final and 21.34sec in final. Won third gold in sprint relay, and silver in 4x400m relay. Voted American Sportswoman of the Year.

1989 Voted Most Outstanding Amateur Athlete in America. Retired from track racing.

1990 Gave birth to daughter, Mary Ruth, in November.

1995 Inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.

1998 Died of a heart seizure, aged 38.