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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest in Sport
Sport
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Trainer / IT Trainer

£30 to £32k : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Trainer / IT Trainer to join an a...

Recruitment Genius: Fence Installer - Commercial

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This privately owned Fencing Co...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £22,000

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you answer yes, this company...

Recruitment Genius: Project / Account Manager and IT Support

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in Online Pro...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'