The fastest woman in the world, Florence Griffith Joyner left a legacy that is record-breaking, bold, inspirational, controversial, fashionable… all at the same time.
One of the most dominant athletes in track and field, the American’s world records (10.49 in the 100 meters and a 21.34 in the 200 meters) set back at the 1988 Seoul Olympics stand to date, more than 30 years later. No athletes has even come close to her records despite the evolution of the modern running gear.
Fondly known as Flo Jo after her marriage to triple jump Olympic champion Al Joyner, she has been immortalised in history for her records, but is somehow not always named among the greatest sprinters because of the rumours of doping surrounding her, increased by her sudden death due to an epileptic seizure in her sleep at the age of 38 in 1998.
But no matter what side of the fence you are on about the records Flo Jo created, one cannot deny the impact she had on athletics.
At the Seoul Olympics, she won three gold and one silver medal to add to her silver from the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But it was the manner in which she won the double gold in 100m and 200m that stunned the world.
Already a word record holder having shattered Evelyn Ashford’s record of 10.79 in 100m at the US Olympic Trials, she was expected to sprint to victory. But the victory was punctuated by one but two broken Olympic records as she won in 10.54.
In 200m, she broke the nine-year-old world record and 100 minutes later set another world record in the final with a time of 21.34 seconds. Additionally, she ran in both relays, winning a third gold medal in the 4x100m and a silver in the 4x400m.
Neither of these world or Olympic records have been broken as yet. However, there was a controversy surrounding the wind factor. The wind reading for her 100m record was 0.0 while the triple jump equipment, which was being held close, showed a wind speed of 4.3 miles per second. Over the years, it has become widely accepted that the faulty wind reading may have added to her speed. However, such was the difference than even with some adjustment, she could well hold the record, which is still upheld. No one but her has come close to breaking it and in fact, the American holds the top three world beats in the 100m.
The wind-assisted numbers aside, in Seoul there was no one remotely close to her near the finish line in the two sprints. With or without the wind, she was so far ahead of the competition it seemed impossible for anyone else to have won.
However, the drug scandal at the 1988 Olympics raised suspicions that the American had also used performance-enhancing substances. Griffith Joyner’s physique and records numbers fuelled these rumours despite her testing negative on all of her doping tests.
Eventually, she quit the sport but her sudden death in 1998 brought back a lot of these questions. She died in her sleep at the age of 38 due to a form of epileptic seizure that led her to suffocate. An autopsy put to rest the rumors that her death was connected to the use of steroids.
Along with her fiery speed, Griffith Joyner was famous for her feisty fashion choices on track as well. She easily identifiable by her bold and colourful attire, sometimes with just the one full leg or sometimes a hood. But the piece de resistance were her 15cm long and brightly decorated nails.
Griffith Joyner was the classic sports story of rags to riches. She came from a poor family and was forced to give up sport at nineteen and become a bank teller to help support her family. But her coach, the famous coach Bob Kersee, helped her enroll at UCLA and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here’s a throwback to her sheer dominance on the track in 1988
Her 100m and 200m sprints at the 1988 Olympics
Her 4x100m gold at the 1988 Olympics
Bonus: Her 100m world record