Thirty-two years ago, Florence Griffith-Joyner sprinted to a world record that is still on the tables: 10.49. Seven months and three Olympic titles later, ‘Flo-Jo’ ended her career. On 22nd September 1998, the American died in her sleep. Flo-Jo left a suspicious legacy. Doesn’t every person with common sense ask himself questions?
The time that Florence Griffith-Joyner clocked during the American trials in Indianapolis on 16th July 1988 says it all. Just 10.49 in the quarterfinals, a whopping 0.27 seconds faster than the previous world record set by Evelyn Ashford and – even more striking – 0.47 seconds faster than the old PR she had run in Cologne the year before. And that while the WR at that distance had previously improved by never more than 0.13 seconds.
Today, 32 years later, her chrono is still standing: during that time, the world record for the men in the 100m has already been set thirteen times sharper. Carmelita Jeter (10.64 in 2009), Marion Jones (10.65 in 1998), Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce (10.70 in 2012), and Elaine Thompson (10.70 in 2016) came closest.
Her time – understandably – raised her eyebrows and initially looked at the wind measurement. It indicated 0.0 m/s – so no wind. “Ridiculous,” quotes a French journalist in September 1988, Track & Field News. “In Europe, people are going to think that you are no better than the Russians with all their fabrications.” It was strange because who was in the warm stadium that day testified that there was a strong wind and that the official measurement could not be correct, especially because the races indicated before, and after that, there was a strong wind.
As in the race of Gwen Torrence, who sprinted about ten minutes after Flo-Jo, “Come on, say. I was running slower than Florence (10.78) while the wind blew 5 m/s into my back.” Ashford didn’t believe it either. “Impossible for a woman to run such a time.”
In the semifinals, Griffith-Joyner clocked 10.70 with a wind advantage of 1.6 m/s and in the finals 10.61 with +1.2 m/s wind. In a scientific study, firewood was already made from that world record. Actually, her 10.61 of the final should be the official world record, but because no technical error was registered in the measurement, 10.49 remains on the tables. To be clear: at wind speeds of more than 2 m/s in advantage, record times are not homologated.
Second world record
Two months later, Florence Griffith-Joyner – a striking appearance with her one-leg outfits and with her incredibly long nails – wrote history again. During the Seoul Games, she won not only Olympic gold in the 100m and 4x100m but also in the 200m, in a new world record of 21.34. Her best time the year before: 21.96.
Again the competition looked at her suspiciously. Rumors about doping and steroids became more and more prominent. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Torrence later said: “Anyone with common sense questions that, doesn’t it? There is no way – no way! – that Florence goes from 10.90 to 10.49. And from 21.9 to 21.3? That’s not how it works. When Ben Johnson (caught in the 1988 Olympics with the anabolic steroid stanozolol) returned clean, he ran 10.44. That means Florence could beat him! Florence always looked beautiful, but in 1988 I saw a physical change in her.”
A Brazilian 800m runner, Joaquim Cruz, went (much) further: “In 1984 Florence still looked very feminine but now she looks more like a man than a woman. Rather like a gorilla. In order to gain so much muscle, they have to do something”.
Al Joyner, her husband and Olympic triple jump champion in 1984, dismissed the suspicions. “During the trials, she sprinted to 10.49, and people said, ‘It’s the wind.’ At the Games, she runs at 21.34, and people say: ‘It is doping’.” Joyner had another word for that: “Envy”.
Farewell to athletics
The fact that Florence Griffith-Joyner suddenly put an end to her career after the Games in 1988 did not do her reputation any good. Especially since she said in Seoul that she thought she could go faster. She only had to work on her start, she said.
Five months later, however, a tearful Flo-Jo announced that she was quitting when she was 29. “I decided to change course and follow other paths. Life has a lot to offer, and there have been other challenges since the Games that I choose to take on now.” Griffith Joyner ventured into children’s books and acting, founded a cosmetics company, and recorded fitness videos, and she had a daughter in 1990. Flo-Jo made millions in commercial deals.
The outside world interpreted her farewell differently. In 1989, the doping battle was supposed to be intensified, and that was the reason Griffith-Joyner quit, according to Kwatong. One month later, Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach, claimed that Flo-Jo was not doping-free, and American 400m runner Darrell Robinson pointed her finger in an article in the German magazine Stern. He claimed that he had personally sold her an ampule of human growth hormone in March 1988 and that her coach Bob Kersee had advised him on steroid use.
Griffith Joyner, who called Robinson a “compulsive goofy liar,” chipped away, “I know what they say about me, and it’s nothing but fabrications and lies. I don’t need doping, and they can test me anytime. I have nothing to hide. Griffith Joyner never tested positive. She attributed her strong progression and sharp times to her gruesome training regimen.
In 1996, with the Atlanta Games approaching, Flo-Jo announced her comeback. Not as a sprinter, but as a distance runner. She had set her sights on the marathon, but it would never get that far. During a flight to St. Louis, she had an epileptic seizure, and Griffith Joyner had to spend the night in a hospital. Details were never released, but there was no mention of a return afterward. Her glory days, which all in all lasted no more than three months, were finally over.
On 21st September 1998, the American died in her sleep at the age of 38. According to the coroner, the result of suffocation from an epileptic seizure. Al Joyner asked to have her body examined thoroughly, including for doping. “My wife has taken a final, ultimate test, and the result is, as always, nothing. So please, let her rest in peace.” And so, 32 years later, her name is still on the tables, although Torrence, among others, don’t like it: “For me, her records do not exist and today’s athletes suffer for what she has done in the 100m and 200m.”