Florence Griffith

Hera's Sports Club: Florence Griffith

Reviewing the history of Florence Griffith, controversy always jumps around the medals and records that keep her, even 30 years later, as the fastest woman in the world.

Did she use prohibited substances or not? How did she manage to modify her body in such a short time? Was there a wind that helped her on the day of the competition? Were official records altered? Why did she retire so soon? Why did she die in such a surprising way?

And so, a long list of doubts and questions.

But let’s go, slowly:

The beginning

The story of Flo-Jo, her nickname, on the running tracks began at an early age. Since she was a child, she stood out and her athletic conditions were more than remarkable. She even won in the 1973’s edition of the Jesse Owens National Youth Games.

Since she was a child, she stood out. Source: Keikai Blog

However, being a full-time athlete didn’t like Florence’s choice to help her family and «make a living», so she put athletics aside to look for a “well-paid” job.

The Coach Bob Kersee turned this story around: knowing his potential, he got a scholarship for her at the famed UCLA and they began to train together. During her college days, Florence accumulated several titles on the NCAA circuit:

  • 1981: she broke the College’s record in the World Cup, in the 4×100 relay competition.
  • 1982: she won the 200 meters race with a time of 22.39 seconds.
  • 1983: in her Senior year, she won in the 400 meters, setting a record for the moment with 50.94 seconds. Also in 1983, she participated in the I World Championships, finishing in the fourth position in the 200 m.

In the UCLA’s records, her mark of 11.06 seconds for the 100 meters is in second place on the all-time ranking, while her 22.23 for the 200 meters (College record) and 50.94 for the 400 meters are at the top of the all-time.

Florence Griffith won her first olympic medal in in her hometown. Source: Pinterest

Medalist at home

After the economic failure of Montreal 1976 and the division generated by the Moscow Olympic Games, the 1984 edition was hanging by a thread, with no candidates to organize it.

However, the United States assumed the responsibility, with Los Angeles’ city as host. 

One of the most relevant aspects of these games is that they allowed the private investment by companies, brands and sponsors, due to the lack of government money. They were also held despite the repeated boycott, this time by the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, who decided not to attend the event on US territory.

In this context, Florence Griffith won the silver medal in the 200 meters in her hometown. She stopped the timers at 22.04 seconds, just behind her compatriot Valerie Brisco-Hooks, with 21.81.

After the 1984 Games, Florence took another break and she married her fellow athlete (and Olympic triple jump champion) Al Joyner. Source: womenafrica.com

After the Games were over, Florence took another break from the tracks. During that period, she married her fellow athlete (and Olympic triple jump champion) Al Joyner.

Her return in 1987 would bring praise and criticism alike.

A year of records

Florence Griffith quickly began to stand out on her return. At the 1987 World Athletics Championships in Rome, she won the gold medal in the 4×100 relay and the silver medal in the 200 meters.

1988 would be her year from start to finish:

  • In the Olympic qualifiers, in Indianapolis, she managed to set the world record for women in the 100 meters with an incredible 10.49, which has remained until now (but always with controversy over the reliability of the record). The previous record was by Evelyn Ashford (10.76).
  • The Olympic Games in Seoul were her consecration, with three gold and one silver medals, thus becoming the first American to achieve that amount in an Olympic event.
    • The 100 meters were the center of her spectacle, not only taking the gold medal, but also registering the three best times in the category: 10.54 seconds in the Final (not considered an Olympic record because the wind speed was higher than allowed), 10.62 seconds in Quarters of final (current Olympic record) and 10.70 seconds in Semifinals.
  • https://youtu.be/XZ6qmuXPRTk
    • In the 200 meters final, she took the gold medal, setting another world record that remains in force, with a set time of 21.34 seconds.
    • A gold in the 4×100 relay and a silver medal in the 4×400 complete her achievements at the event.

That year she also received different awards and prizes:

  • The Olympic Committee named her Athlete of the Year, in the women’s category.
  • Associated Press, UPI and Track & Field magazine also named her Athlete of the Year.
  • She won the Jesse Owens Athletics Award for the best performing athlete and the 1989 Sullivan Award for Outstanding Amateur Athletes.

Despite the victories, it wasn’t all flowers for Flo-Jo. These records would be surrounded by criticism and suspicions ranging from the use of illegal substances to wrong logs on wind speed.

They even began to resonate louder, after the Californian decided to permanently withdraw from the athletics tracks about five months after the Olympics in Seoul. Shortly after, the anti-doping rules were strengthened by establishing random tests, adding fuel to the fire.

The controversy

All the commotion caused by Florence Griffith’s records can be analyzed from the following aspects:

  • Possible use of steroids: According to sports authorities, Griffith never tested positive in the anti-doping tests to which she was subjected. However, that has not been enough to convince her critics, who highlight the physical change she had between 1984 and 1988.

«First, when she achieved a new world record, they said that the wind had helped her. Later, when she won all those medals, they said that it was drugs,» claimed her husband and coach Al Joyner, who assured that the only reason for her success was constant work and dedication. Florence herself assured that this improvement in her physical condition was due to the change of coach and to the strength exercises that she increased in her routine to work her lower body. 

It is worth noting that, during the 80s, the sport experienced a dark period regarding the use of steroids and other illegal substances. In fact, after the Olympics in Seoul, Ben Johnson was stripped of his titles for doping and the accusations of Darrell Robinson against Flo-Jo and other athletes started, although those were never proven.

  • Unbeatable record: Men’s records have changed hands several times in the last 30 years, while the time set by Florence in the 100 meters remains intact, and no female runner has been able to get close enough.

The athletes who have come closest to the record are: Carmelita Jeter (10.64, 2009), Marion Jones (10.65, 1998), Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (10.70, 2012) and Elaine Thompson (10.70, 2013), This fact raises suspicions to a lot of peopel, adding to the theories about drug use or favorable (but illegal) conditions for Flo-Jo be able “to fly” on the track.

In 1995 she was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame. Source: SportsCasting.com
  • Registro del viento: The legal limit for wind speed in athletics competitions is + 2m / s. This ensures that streams of air do not favor (or inconvenience) the athletes’ performance.

In the case of Griffith’s record in 1988, there is a lot of confusion and different versions. Officially, a wind of 0.0 m / s was recorded. However, other records from that day show wind speeds well above the legal limit that could have favored the performance of the athletes.

Many have pointed directly to the video of the race, pointing out the movement of some elements on the track, which confirm the wind. On the other hand, the city’s airport, which is located near the stadium, reported winds between 29 and 35 kph that day. In addition, other events that were held in parallel or close to the women’s 100 meters final race, such as the semifinals and final of the men’s 100 meters (+2.6 m / s, +4.9 m / s and +5.2 m / s .) and the men’s triple jump (4.3 m / s, 4.5 m / s) had high numbers to the wind speed.

Another issue that raises suspicions is that three series of the quarterfinals of the women’s 100-meter were held in about 10 minutes; the first two rounds recorded 0.0 m / s, while the last one 5 m / s.

The supplier of the anemometers, Omega, has always insisted that that day there was no problem with any of the measuring equipment and that during the race, as the wind was changing, it blew perpendicular to the anemometers and the athletes, ruling out any favorable effect.

That statement was not convincing and there are even studies and analyzes that have focused on refuting it.

  • Her retirement: A few months after breaking records and winning medals, Florence Griffith announced her retirement. This decision only added suspicions, considering that anti-doping tests by surprise were starting to happen.
  • Her death: In 1996, Flo-Jo announced her return to sports; the goal was to reach the 400 meters record, but tendinitis thwarted her attempt. Shortly after, with her death on September 21, 1998, suspicions of illicit substance abuse were fueled..

According to the official report, the autopsy indicated that she died of a seizure of epilepsy and subsequent suffocation in her sleep. Again, the IOC Medical Commission stated that Florence tested negative for the multiple tests she was subjected to during her career.

Outside the tracks

Florence Griffith was extremely talented, but she also had personality and charisma to spare. When she entered the athletics tracks, there was no way not to notice her: she arrived with her hair neat, her nails long and manicured, and in striking clothes, often designed by herself.

During the 80’s, Florence was one of the athletes who got money, through sponsorships and alliances with different brands. One of the most iconic deals was with the toy company LJN, which created a doll inspired by the athlete.

Fashion lover, Flo-Jo didn’t just make her outfits for sporting events. In 1989, she was invited to design the Indiana Pacers jerseys, which the squad wore for seven seasons and are familiar to any fan of the so-called «best basketball in the world.»

She also appeared on the soap opera Santa Bárbara, tried painting, writing romance novels, as well as patenting her own brand of cosmetics and recording videos about health and fitness.

After her retirement, she was president of the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and worked with the North American Cancer Society, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, and the Business Coalition Against Osteoporosis. She was also a co-founder of the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation.

In 1995 she was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame. In 1998, her Alma Mater had planned her Hall of Fame induction, with an event scheduled for just two weeks after Florence’s death was announced.

Despite her death, Flo-Jo continues to receive recognition: Ebony Magazine listed her in its March 2020 issue as one of the Top 10 African-American Athletes of All Time, and Sports Illustrated named her in the 6th spot among the top 40 athletes of the so-called Title IX Era.

Florence Griffith-Joyner in the Madame Tussaud’s Museum, New York. Fuente: Flickr

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