Athletics: Flo-Jo and the shadow of doubt

A tragedy has been forgotten in the rush for a post-mortem on her life and super-fast times

IT WAS Hector Rivera, sheriff of Orange County, who announced the death of Florence Griffith Joyner. "She apparently died of natural causes," he told the world on Monday. The world, however, has not taken Lieutenant Rivera at his word. For five days now the world has been conducting its own inquest into the death, and life, of the fastest ever woman. The popular verdict is that her premature death, like her life in the fast lane, may not have been so quite so natural.

"A connection to steroid use would be impossible to prove," Dr Paul Thompson, a cardiologist and president of the American College of Sports Medicine, told the New York Times. All around the globe, however, before Griffith Joyner was cold in her coffin, people were making that very connection. Here in England, in the Commonwealth Games Grandstand studio, Sue Barker had hardly relayed the news before she raised the inevitable question- mark which accompanied Flo-Jo to her grave in the Saddleback Valley Community Church, south of Los Angeles, yesterday.

"There were a lot of rumours and drug allegations," the tennis player- turned-presenter said, prompting Roger Black into the old debate about the Los Angelean's suspiciously sudden emergence as a world-beater and world record wrecker 10 years ago. It took the words of David Moorcroft to remind the watching world that Florence Griffith Joyner had been a human being as well as an issue. "The most important thing at the moment," the chief executive of UK Athletics said, "is just sadness that a relatively young woman has died."

The death of Griffith Joyner, a 38-year-old mother, is indeed a tragedy. It is tragic too, in the dramatic sense at least, that such a terrible loss has been all but forgotten in the rush to conduct a public post-mortem examination of her life and super-fast times. By the time Al Joyner laid his wife to rest yesterday, the memory of her was already disappearing under the digging for dirt. The tragedy for sport is that it has come to something as ghoulish as this.

It is not uncommon for 38-year-old women to die of natural causes. It was, though, inevitable that the world would suspect something unnatural when the wonder woman of the Seoul Olympics was found dead by her husband at their home in Mission Viejo, California, last Monday morning. There was, after all, nothing natural about the transformation of Florence Griffith Joyner from also-ran to historical untouchable in 1988.

There was nothing natural about the muscle-bound frame partially hidden by the outrageous one-legged running suits she chose to wear, about the acne beneath the thick layer of make-up she smeared on her face, about her elongated jaw-line - or about the manfully deep voice that would drawl her standard response to the obvious question. "I do not take drugs," she would say. "I have never taken drugs. I will never take drugs."

It was a mantra she last delivered on the final day of the 1988 Olympic Games, in her plush suite on the 34th floor of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Seoul, having added 4 x 100m gold and 4 x 400m silver to 100m and 200m golds already in her bedroom drawer. "I know exactly what people are saying about Florence Griffith Joyner," she added that day. "And it's simply not true. I don't need to use drugs. They can come and test me every week of the year if they want to. I've got nothing to hide."

But Flo-Jo had no need to hide. She was never tested again. She never raced again. Having discovered previously hidden powers at the age of 28, she sped into abrupt retirement. To the world at large it seemed a beguiling decision. To the track and field fraternity, however, it was no surprise. Random testing was about to be introduced in the wake of Ben Johnson's conspicuous failure to beat the system in Seoul.

There were even whispers, mentioned in dispatches last week in USA Today, that Griffith Joyner, like Johnson, had tested positive in the South Korean capital. Dr Park Jong Sei, director of the Doping Control Centre in Seoul, revealed after the Games that 20 athletes who failed tests had not been punished - because of split votes among the International Olympic Committee's medical commission. It was rumoured that Griffith Joyner escaped admonition on the understanding that she would never race again, thus sparing the United States the shame brought upon Canada by Johnson. On Wednesday, however, the chairman of the IOC's medical commission, Prince Alexandre de Merode, insisted that Griffith Joyner had been rigorously tested in Seoul and passed clean. "There should not be the slightest suspicion," he said. "Let her rest in peace. The issue is closed."

Griffith Joyner heard what the grapevine was saying. "It's just jealousy," she said. As she slipped into her retirement, though, she never took legal action against those who cast aspersions - even when Darrell Robinson, the former American 400m runner, told the German magazine Stern that he had supplied her with Human Growth Hormone. She never challenged Carl Lewis, either, about the pointed reference he made to her in his autobiography Inside Track: "She had made the transformation from being just another Olympian to one of the most incredible athletes in the world and it was a change that came too quickly for the imagination. Her physical appearance alone - muscles popping everywhere - made a lot of people wonder. Then there was her voice, much deeper than it had been in the past."

The transformation on the track could hardly have been more pronounced. In 1987 Griffith Joyner had been quick enough to take only the 200m silver medal, behind Silke Gladisch of East Germany, in the World Championships in Rome. A year later she left the 100m and 200m world records, not to mention her rivals, floundering in her trail-blazing wake. She reduced the 100m record from 10.76sec to 10.49 and the 200m from 21.71 to 21.34, improving her personal bests at each distance by 0.47sec and 0.62sec respectively. It would be the equivalent of Darren Campbell, Britain's European 100m champion, emerging as a 9.56sec runner next summer and Julian Golding, winner of the Commonwealth 200m title last week, taking a quantum leap from 20.18sec to 19.54.

The question now is whether Griffith Joyner has paid the ultimate price for her incredible success. An initial autopsy failed to determine the cause of her death and the results of the subsequent re-examination may not be known for weeks. Reports of a heart seizure were dismissed by Bob Kersee, the coach who discovered Flo-Jo as a fast girl from Watts, the notorious Los Angeles ghetto. "We have no idea why Florence left us," he told a news conference in Los Angeles.

Professor Werner Franke has been less equivocal. The man who uncovered the systematic sports doping programme in the former East Germany has pointed to the seizure Griffith Joyner suffered while travelling from Los Angeles to St Louis two years ago as "symptomatic of the abuse of anabolic steroids". It is known that excessive steroid use can narrow arteries and strain the heart. It is not known for certain, though, whether such symptoms were responsible for killing the woman who ran out of the world record books.

"People need to be educated about drugs," one prominent former athlete remarked in 1989. "There must be more research. People just speculate and guess. And that's very sad." They were the words of Florence Griffith Joyner, whose very sad passing was mourned in a Californian churchyard yesterday.

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