FloJo Made Speed Fashionable

Updated: March 24, 2005, 10:15 AM ET
By Kris Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"[Florence Griffith Joyner] was someone who wanted to make a fashion statement, as well as do it while running so fast you could barely see the fashion," says Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Florence Griffith Joyner
Florence Griffith Joyner still holds the world record in the 100- and 200-meters.
With her outrageous looks and lightning speed, Florence Griffith Joyner captivated the world. Her racing attire consisted of a variety of outfits -- some lace, some fluorescent, some bearing one leg. Her nails, sometimes longer than four inches, became a trademark.

In 1988, FloJo arrived in Korea for the Olympics as the favorite to win the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Just two months earlier at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she obliterated Evelyn Ashford's world record of 10.76 seconds in the 100 with her time of 10.49 and ran the four fastest 100s ever (though one was wind-aided). She also set an American record in winning the 200.

In the 100-meter final in Seoul, the 5-foot-7, 130-pound Joyner bettered the Olympic record with her 10.54, but because it was wind-aided it didn't go into the record book. On the way to the gold medal, she broke the Olympic mark three times in four races -- which gave her the seven fastest 100-meter times in history.

She blistered Marita Koch's world record of 21.71 seconds by running a 21.56 in the semifinals of the 200 meters. Then, less than two hours later, she bettered that mark with an amazing 21.34 in capturing her second gold medal.

But the drug scandal at the 1988 Olympics overshadowed her achievements. When the men's 100-meter winner, Ben Johnson, had his gold medal stripped because he tested positive for steroids, FloJo's races were looked on with skepticism.

Some suspected her of using performance-enhancing substances because of her incredible physique and stunning improvements in the past year. Brazilian middle-distance runner Joaquim Cruz accused FloJo of using performance-enhancing drugs. Magazines ran two photos side-by-side depicting her facial differences between 1984 and 1988.

Through it all, FloJo maintained that she never used drugs. Although she tested negative on all of her drug tests, the rumors kept swirling. And soon she left the sport she loved.

The seventh of 11 children, Florence Delorez Griffith was born on Dec. 21, 1959 in Mojave, Cal., 90 miles north of Los Angeles. When she was four, her mother Florence, a seamstress, left her father Robert, who was an electrical technician, and moved the family into the Jordan Downs housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

As a child, Florence attempted many things. She sewed together her own clothes for her Barbie dolls and constantly tried on her mother's dresses. She had handstand competitions with her siblings and neighborhood kids. She rode to the store on a unicycle. She even trained a pet rat, and once was asked to leave a mall when she came with a pet snake around her neck.

Her speed was shown at an early age. The Griffith children spent some time with their father in the Mojave Desert and when Florence was five, he dared her to chase jackrabbits. Eventually, she caught one. She ran potato-sack racing in a park. By the time she was seven, she was running track.

At Jordan High School, she set school records in the sprints and long jump. After graduating in 1978, she helped California State Northridge win the national championship the following year. Her sprint coach was Bob Kersee.

After the title, she dropped out of school for financial reasons and worked as a bank teller. In 1980, she enrolled at UCLA, where Kersee had become an assistant coach.

Florence Griffith Joyner
Florence Griffith Joyner's world record of 10.49 in the 100 meters has stood since 1988.

As a junior in 1982, she won her first individual NCAA title, taking the 200 meters in 22.39 seconds. In 1983, although she slipped back to a second-place finish in the 200, she won the 400 in 50.94. After graduating UCLA that year with a degree in psychology, she finished fourth in the 200 at the World Championships.

At the 200 at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, she ran a 22.02 to take the silver medal, beaten by Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who set an Olympic record of 21.81.

After the 1985 track season, without financial means of support, she again went to work at a bank. At night, she often styled her friends' hair and nails. Depending on the style, she charged between $45 and $200 for braids that would last five months. Meanwhile, she still found time to train under Kersee, and at the 1987 World Championships she won the silver medal in the 200 with a time of 21.96.

On Oct. 10, 1987, Griffith became part of the first family of track and field when she married Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist and brother of heptathlon Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The following July, FloJo exploded into national prominence at the 1988 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. With her 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters, she crushed Ashford's four-year-old world record. Controversy came immediately when the wind reading of 0.0 appeared. Just 30 feet away on the triple-jump anemometer, winds swirled at an unacceptable 4.3 meters per second, and almost every sprint that day had a wind reading.

But Joyner's record was upheld. The next day, she won the final in 10.61 with a legal wind of 1.2 meters, leaving no doubt that she was the "fastest woman in the world."

A week after the Trials, Joyner left Kersee's training camp and hired a business manager. Her husband Al took over as her fulltime coach. Financial differences and a lack of attention were the reasons given for the switch.

On Sept. 25, 1988, FloJo won her first Olympic gold medal. She got a terrific start in the 100 meters and past the halfway point she was smiling. Finishing in her wind-aided 10.54 seconds, she easily defeated Ashford, the defending champion.

Four days later, she astounded the track world with her world-record performance in the 200, pulling away in the second half of the race to beat Grace Jackson by .38 seconds. FloJo capped her Olympics by winning a third gold in the 4x100-meter relay and a silver in the 4x400 relay.

But four months later, the word's fastest woman was gone from track and field.

In February 1989, the 29-year-old Joyner made the stunning announcement that she was retiring from competitive running to concentrate on business opportunities, such as acting and writing. Although she had invited anyone to test her every week if it would prove she didn't use drugs, some felt that she was fleeing the sport while she could.

The rumors, though, wouldn't cease. Later in 1989, sprinter Darrell Robinson told a German magazine, Stern, that FloJo paid him $2,000 for 10 cubic centimeters of human growth hormone the previous year. She denied the accusations vehemently. Appearing on The Today Show with him, she called Robinson "a compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic."

After her retirement, FloJo wrote children's books, poetry and a romance novel. She began an acting career, making guest appearances on the sitcom 227 and the soap opera Santa Barbara. She established her own clothing design and cosmetics businesses. She fulfilled a lifelong dream as a fashion designer, even designing uniforms for the Indiana Pacers in 1989. While she trained for long-distance running, she never made a serious comeback.

On Nov. 15, 1990, she gave birth to her only child, Mary Ruth Joyner.

In April 1996, Joyner was rushed to Washington University's Barnes-Jewish Hospital after suffering a seizure on a flight to St. Louis. Two-and-a-half years later, she suffered a much more serious seizure.

Ten years after capturing the admiration of America, while sleeping in her home in Mission Viejo, Cal., she died of suffocation during a severe epileptic seizure on Sept. 21, 1998. Florence Griffith Joyner was 38 years old. While questions resurfaced about drugs, the autopsy did not reveal any use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs in her system.

FloJo still owns the world records in both the 100 and 200 meters.

ALSO SEE