Florence Griffith-Joyner : Inspiration in spandex

Florence Griffith-Joyner blasted into the record books and the hearts of many Americans at Seoul in 1988. An experienced runner and silver medalist at Los Angeles four years earlier, “Flo-Jo” had been chewing around the edges of superstardom for only a year.
Not much was expected of her in the qualification rounds a few months before. On that day in Indiana, she lined up in her self-designed purple leotard and summoned up the greatest race of her life. Her run of 10.49 seconds in the 100 metres set a record that stands today, almost 30 years later.
She went to Seoul with expectations that were somewhat dampened by a couple of indifferent runs in the interim. In England, she couldn’t beat 11 seconds. It seemed to some that the world record in the qualifier was a freak. Indeed, even at the time, it was assumed that something had gone wrong. There was talk of a timing malfunction or a very favourable tail wind pushing her into the record books.
It would not be the last time Griffith-Joyner’s accomplishments were undermined and questioned.
At Seoul, she lined up ready to go one better and win the gold that had alluded her in 1984. Plastered-on make-up and huge hair set her apart from the field, and after the starter’s pistol fired, they were the only things that made her stand out. The field was evenly spread from the outset, but at the 60 metre mark, something happened.
She accelerated like she was harbouring a secret propane tank. Watching the race today, the viewer can see incredible grace linked to awesome power. Her high-kicking stride propelled her out of the crowd and towards the finish line. As she crossed it, with a time of 10.54, she wore a huge smile and was handed the American flag to wave. Later she said that “I wasn’t chasing the time, I was chasing the win. A gold, that’s the first for me at the Olympics and I just thank God that it’s over.”
She won the gold in the 200 metres as well, destroying the world record, which she herself had set. Following that, she took gold in the 4X100 relay.
It seemed that track had its next superstar. What she did next surprised everyone. In 1989, she retired.
Griffith-Joyner had always been a dedicated athlete, but had a range of other interests that she wanted to explore. Her box office was never going to be any higher than it was in 1988. Her style was being copied throughout the State, with her state-of-the-art hair and incredible nails. She often wore them 6-inches long, and had them painted with the stars and stripes, or with the heavily symbolic colour of gold.
Her stated claim was that she wanted to devote her time to raising a family and pursuing acting. It is perhaps fashion, though, that best represents her off the field. As recently as 2016, Vogue featured an article on her flamboyant running suits. She would design them herself, and they often featured a single cut-away leg and bright colours. During one meet, she incorporated lace into the design. Flo-Jo was consciously feminine at a time when female track stars were all about utilitarianism.
But this did not detract from her running. She claimed that it helped her to be more competitive, saying that “Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!”
Yet again, detractors saw her retirement through the lens of suspicion. Such had been her improvement since 1987, and the change in her physique, that whispers of drugs began. With the introduction of mandatory testing in 1989, it was thought that she was slinking away before she got caught. Ben Johnson’s phenomenal win over favourite Carl Lewis in the men’s event was revealed to be grounded in steroid use, and eyes turned to the radically different Flo-Jo. They are rumours that persist to this day.
It doesn’t help that her world records for the 100 and 200 metres are still unbroken. Some sprinters have almost given up hope of matching them. For example, in 1996, 200m world record holder Gwen Torrence said: “To me, those two records don’t exist. Women sprinters are suffering because of what she did to the times in the 100 and 200.”
Griffith-Joyner always flatly denied the allegations. She said that ‘’I have never taken any drugs. I don’t believe in them. It’s a false accusation.’’ She was in fact never proven to have taken them. The rumours should really have stopped when the president of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, Prince Alexandre de Mérode, said, “We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her, we never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion.”
Her husband and coach, Al Joyner, has been contesting the claims ever since they emerged. He said that the changes in her body, with an incredibly low body fat ratio revealing hard muscle, were down to his training methodology. In a time of greater separation between the sexes, he trained her as he would a man. She engaged in hundreds of leg curls every night, and trained 12 hours per day.
Even with her death at the age of 38 from an epileptic seizure, her triumphant life was questioned. Joyner requested that her body should be screened for drugs so that her name could finally be cleared. No trace was found, though it was later revealed that she did not have enough urine in her bladder for a proper test. Despite this, Joyner felt vindicated, saying, “She passed the ultimate drugs test. The one consistent thing about my wife was that she never dodged those questions about drug abuse, she never hid from anything. Where can they go from here? They can’t argue with it.”
Florence Griffith-Joyner was, and still is, an icon. Growing up as she did in one of Los Angeles’ poorer neighbourhoods, she had to drop out of school to support her family. Once she finally managed to pick up a small sponsorship deal for her running career, she never looked back. She allied her tremendous physical powers with her determination to become one of the Olympic giants. Her tragedy is only in the shape of her untimely death, and not in the way she lived her life.