Who Was Flo Jo?

Florence Griffith Joyner was born in Los Angeles projects on the 21st December 1959 but it would be 28 years later in the Olympic heat of Seoul that the legend of Flo-Jo was born.

Instantly recognisable with her flashy one-legged running outfits, long hair, and brightly painted fingernails, the American took gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m as well as silver in the 4x400m relay.

Ten years later she was dead.

For Flo-Jo the flame that burns brightest also burns shortest.

But what of the woman behind the myth?

The young Florence Griffith was the seventh of eleven children raised by a schoolteacher mother who divorced when Griffith was 6.

About the time of her parents’ divorce, Griffith took up running through a local youth foundation.

A girl blessed with intelligence as well as speed she graduated from Jordan High School in Los Angeles in 1978 and after a stint at California State University Northridge, she received a track scholarship to UCLA.

She ran track for the university and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1983.

She trained as a beautician before the 1984 Olympic Games held in her home city of Los Angeles where she took the silver medal in the 200m.

Many predicted that it would be her greatest achievement.

At those same games Griffiths became friendly with a man she had first been introduced to in 1980 and who had just become the triple jump Olympic champion, Al Joyner.

The pair dated and finally married in 1987 and Al along with Bob Kersee would mould the sprinter’s training.

That same year the now Mrs. Florence Griffith Joyner added another silver medal from the world championships held in Rome as well as a gold medal in the 4x100m relay.

Flo Jo winning the 200m at Seoul (haven’t)

Then came 1988 and the US Olympic trials held in Indianapolis.

In the quarterfinals of that competition Flo-Jo would record the first, and most controversial of her world records.

Stopping the clock at 10.49 a full .27 faster than the previous record set by Evelyn Ashford, Flo-Jo was overjoyed to see the wind reading of 0.0, indicating the time was a legitimate new world record.

However several journalists and spectators noted the clear evidence of wind being present at the time of the quarter final with flags waving in the breeze.

To compound matters every other race that day had a wind speed reading in excess of 2 m/s per second indicating that the wind measuring equipment had malfunctioned for the world record run rather than the wind having dropped.

Flo-Jo never again ran faster than 10.61 yet the time is still to this day the benchmark for female 100m runners.

Griffith Joyner left Indianapolis with invites to the 100m, 200m of the Olympic Games and 3 months later she would shine.

With the world record already in the bag, Flo Jo came to the championships as the heavy favourite to win the 100m title.

She didn’t disappoint, winning in 10.54 seconds, albeit wind assisted from a world class field simply left for dead.

After winning the 100m in such imperious circumstances she repeated the feat in the 200m.

With three runners in contention coming off of the bend, Flo Jo turned on the style and eased away from the field to win by a huge margin, sweetest of all though was the time, 21.34 a new world record.

Gold in the 4x100m followed and her chance of a 100% record was only ended by a word record breaking Soviet team pushed all the way by Flo Jo who ran the last leg for the USA.

With the world seemingly at her feet Flo Jo could seemingly do anything but as the Olympics left South Korea, the sun set on Flo-Jo’s career.

In February 1989 Flo Jo retired from competitive athletics aged 29.

She tried to stage a comeback in 1996 for the Atlanta games but a tendon problem thwarted her efforts.

She would spend the next ten years expanding into the world of fashion, acting, sports broadcasting, writing children’s books and starting up foundations for underprivileged children.

On the 21st September 1998 Florence Griffith Joyner, the woman heralded as an inspiration to millions of women, died in her sleep.

She had been suffocated by her own pillow whilst in the throws of an epileptic fit.
Rumours abounded that her death had come as the result of previous use of performance enhancing drugs but this was not the case.

The Coroner found that Griffith Joyner had suffered positional asphyxia, epileptiform seizure and a cavernous angioma of the left orbital frontal cerebrum.

In simple terms she had been suffocated by her pillow during one of the epileptic episodes that that had dogged her since 1990 and were the result of a congenital defect developed before birth.

Tissue samples of Flo Jo’s organs were taken and analysed but could not prove use of performance enhancing drugs.

Flo Jo melding athletics and fashion

However, like most athletes from that period a mountain of circumstantial evidence surrounds her.

There were accusations made by Darrell Robinson that she had bought Human Growth Hormone (HGH) from him in the run up to Seoul and for some simply the vast improvement in her times from 1987 to 1988 were systematic of guilt.

For others the fact that she succeeded at a time when the East Germans were carrying out state controlled doping of their athletes and other top class Americans (such as Carl Lewis) were failing drugs tests indicates guilt.

Speculation will continue to rage until the name of Florence Griffith Joyner is erased from the record books by a yet more talented athlete but what is undoubted is her impact on the sport of athletics.

Whilst the mortal flame may expire, the legend never will.

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