Florence Griffith Joyner – #BlackHistoryMonth

Florence Delorez Griffith Joyner[1] (December 21, 1959 – September 21, 1998), also known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field athlete. She is considered the fastest woman of all time[2][3][4] based on the fact that the world records she set in 1988 for both the 100 m and 200 m still stand and have yet to be seriously challenged. She died in her sleep as the result of an epileptic seizure in 1998 at the age of 38. She attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Education and career[edit]

Griffith was born in Los Angeles, California, and she was raised in the Jordan Downs public housing complex. During the late 1980s she became a popular figure in international track and field because of her record-setting performances and flashy personal style. She was the wife of the triple jumper Al Joyner and the sister-in-law of the heptathlete and long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Griffith ran track at Jordan High School in Los Angeles. As a senior in 1978, she finished sixth at the CIF California State Meet behind future teammates Alice Brown and Pam Marshall.[5] Griffith attended the California State University at Northridge, and she was on the track team coached by Joyner-Kersee’s future husband, Bob Kersee. This team also included her teammates Brown and Jeanette Bolden. However, Griffith had to drop out in order to support her family, and then she took a job as a bank teller. Kersee was then able to find financial aid for Griffith and she returned to college.[6] Brown, Bolden, and Griffith qualified for the 100-meter final at the trials for the 1980 Summer Olympics (Brown winning, Griffith last in the final). Griffith also ran the 200 meters, narrowly finishing fourth, a foot out of a qualifying position. However, the U.S. Government had already decided to boycottthose Olympic Games mooting those results.[7] After the season Kersee became the head coach of the track team at the University of California at Los Angeles, which prompted Griffith to also transfer there, since she was academically eligible to do so. In 1982, Griffith graduated from UCLA with her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Griffith finished fourth in the 200 meter sprint at the first World Championship in Athletics in 1983. The following year she gained much more attention, though mostly because of her extremely long and colorful fingernails, rather than the silver medal that she won in the1984 Summer Olympics. In 1985, she won the 100-meter IAAF Grand Prix Final with the time of 11.00 seconds. After the 1984 Olympic Games, she spent less time running, and she married the Olympic triple jump champion of 1984, Al Joyner, in 1987.

Upon returning at the 1987 World Championships, Griffith Joyner finished second again in the 200 meter sprint.

In 1988, with no outstanding early season marks to indicate fitness, in the first race of the quarterfinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials, she stunned her colleagues when she sprinted 100 meters in 10.49 seconds, the world record. Several sources indicate that her race was most likely wind-assisted. Although at the time of the race the wind meter at the event measured a wind speed of 0.0 meters per second (no wind), some observers who were present noted evidence of significant winds, and wind speeds of up to 7.0 m/s were measured at other times during the track meet. The previous race on the track was measured at +5.2, and while the second quarterfinal was also 0.0, the third quarterfinal was +4.9.[7]

Since 1997 the International Athletics Annual of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians has listed this performance as “probably strongly wind assisted, but recognized as a world record”.[8] Besides this one race, Griffith Joyner’s fastest wind-legal time in this sprint was 10.61 seconds, which would also be the unbroken world record.

By now known to the world as “Flo-Jo”, Griffith Joyner was the big favorite for the titles in the sprint events at the 1988 Summer Olympics. In the 100-meter final, she ran a wind-assisted 10.54, beating her nearest rival Evelyn Ashford by 0.30 seconds. In the 200 meter semifinal, she set the world record of 21.56 seconds, and then she broke this record again in winning in the final by 0.38 seconds with her time of 21.34 seconds.[9]

At the same Olympics Griffith Joyner also ran with the 4×100 m relay and the 4×400 m relay teams. Her team won first place in the4×100 m relay and second place in the 4×400 m relay. Their time is still the second fastest in history, following the winner of this race. This was her first internationally rated 4×400 m relay. Griffith Joyner was the winner of the James E. Sullivan Award of 1988 as the top amateur athlete (male or female) in the United States. She retired from competition shortly after that.

In 1996, Griffith Joyner appeared on the Charlie Rose show, and she announced her comeback to competitive athletics, only this time to concentrate on the 400-meter run.[10] Her reason was that she had already set world marks in both the 100 m and 200 m events, with the 400 m world record being her goal. Griffith Joyner trained steadily leading up to the U.S. Olympic trials in June. However, tendonitis in her right leg ended her hopes of becoming a triple-world-record holder. Al Joyner was to also attempt a comeback, but he too was unable to compete due to an injured quadriceps muscle.[11]

Among the things she did away from the track was to design the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers NBA team in 1989.[12]

Griffith Joyner appeared in the soap opera, Santa Barbara in 1992, as “Terry Holloway”, a photographer similar to Annie Leibovitz.

Flo Jo at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988.

Allegations of drug use[edit]

Aside from whether her 1988 Olympic trial world record was wind-aided, Griffith Joyner was dogged by rumors of drug use.

In 1988, Joaquim Cruz, the Brazilian gold medalist in the 800-meter run at the 1984 Summer Olympics, claimed that Griffith Joyner’s times could only have been the result of using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, that her physique had changed dramatically in 1988 (showing marked gains in muscle mass and definition), and that her performance had improved dramatically over a short period of time.[13] Before the 1988 track and field season, Griffith Joyner’s best time in the 100-meter sprint was 10.96 seconds. In 1988, she improved that by 0.47 seconds (or 0.35 sec for the non-wind-aided time). Similarly, her best before 1988 at 200-meters was 21.96 seconds. In 1988, she improved that by 0.62 seconds to 21.34 seconds, another time that has not been approached. Prior to the Olympic games in Seoul, she prematurely cut her European tour short (she had been booed off the track by the spectators).[citation needed] Griffith Joyner attributed the change in her physique to new health programs.[14] Al Joyner replaced Bob Kersee as her coach, and he changed her training program to include more lower body strength training exercises such as squats and lunges.[15]

Griffith Joyner retired from competitive track and field after her Olympic triumph in 1988.[16] She was repeatedly tested during competition, and she did not fail any of these drug tests.[17] Mandatory random out-of-competition drug testing came into effect during the 1989 season.[18]

After her death in 1998, Prince Alexandre de Merode, the Chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, claimed that Joyner was singled out for extra, rigorous drug testing during the 1988 Olympic Games because of rumors of steroid use. De Merode told The New York Times that Manfred Donike, who was at that time considered to be the foremost expert on drugs and sports, failed to discover any banned substances during that testing.[19] De Merode later said:

“We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her. We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion.”[20]

Death[edit]

On September 21, 1998, Griffith Joyner died in her sleep at home in the Canyon Crest neighborhood of Mission Viejo, California, at the age of 38. The unexpected death was investigated by the sheriff-coroner‘s office, which announced on October 22 that the cause of death was suffocation during a severe epileptic seizure.[16] She was also found to have had a cavernous hemangioma, a congenital brain abnormality that made Joyner subject to seizures.[21] According to a family attorney, she had suffered a tonic–clonic seizure in 1990, and had also been treated for seizures in 1993 and 1994.

The coroner had requested that Griffith Joyner’s body specifically be tested for steroids, but was informed that there was not enough urine in her bladder and that the test could not accurately be performed on other biological samples.[16]

The city of Mission Viejo dedicated a park at the entrance to her neighborhood in her honor.[22][23]

Olympic Games and trials results[edit]

Race Venue Date Round Time Wind
100 m Indianapolis July 16, 1988 Qualifying heat 10.60 +3.2
100 m Indianapolis July 16, 1988 Quarter-final 10.49 0.0
100 m Indianapolis July 17, 1988 Semi-final 10.70 +1.6
100 m Indianapolis July 17, 1988 Final 10.61 +1.2
100 m Seoul September 24, 1988 Qualifying heat 10.88 +1.0
100 m Seoul September 24, 1988 Quarter-final 10.62 +1.0
100 m Seoul September 25, 1988 Semi-final 10.70 +2.6
100 m Seoul September 25, 1988 Final 10.54 +3.0
200 m Indianapolis July 22, 1988 Qualifying heat 21.96 +0.6
200 m Indianapolis July 22, 1988 Quarter-final 21.77 −0.1
200 m Indianapolis July 23, 1988 Semi-final 21.90 +2.4
200 m Indianapolis July 23, 1988 Final 21.85 +1.3
200 m Seoul September 28, 1988 Qualifying heat 22.51  ?
200 m Seoul September 28, 1988 Quarter-final 21.76 +0.7
200 m Seoul September 29, 1988 Semi-final 21.56 +1.7
200 m Seoul September 29, 1988 Final 21.34 +1.3

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