Florence Griffith Joyner: The life and tragic death of the fastest woman of all time

On what would be her 62nd birthday, GiveMeSport Women takes a look at the life and death of Florence Griffith Joyner

This summer, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce embarked on an epic battle for Olympic gold in the women’s 100 metres.

Thompson-Herah was triumphant, beating her Jamaican teammate and crossing the line in 10.61 seconds.

The 29-year-old did not stop there. Just weeks later, she ran a personal best of 10.54 to win the 100m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene.

Despite this impressive time, Thompson-Herah is yet to break the world record. That still belongs to Florence Griffith Joyner, who ran 10.49 at the US Olympic trials in 1988.

The American also holds the world record for the women’s 200m, managing to win a gold medal at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games in 21.34.

Griffith Joyner, nicknamed Flo Jo, was known for her one-legged spandex bodysuits, six-inch nails, and long-flowing hair.

Her eclectic personal style went hand in hand with a brilliant career on the track, but it all ended in tragedy when Griffith Joyner died in 1998, aged 38.

On what would be her 62nd birthday, GiveMeSport Women takes a look at the life and death of Flo Jo.

GiveMeSport Women takes a look at the life and death of Florence Griffith Joyner

The early career of Florence Griffith Joyner

Griffith Joyner was born in Los Angeles, California, on December 21st, 1959. She began running aged 7, chasing hares to increase her speed, and it soon became clear that she was extremely talented.

Aged 14, Flo Jo won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games, triumphing a second time a year later. She went on to compete for Jordan High School.

Griffith Joyner qualified for the 100m final at the US Olympic trials for Moscow 1980, but placed last. She performed better in the 200m final, finishing fourth and narrowly missing out on a qualification position.

The US had decided to boycott the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games at that point anyway, rendering Flo Jo’s efforts futile.

She enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1980, and became NCAA champion in the women’s 200m in 1982. The following year, she did the same in the 400m event.

It was during this period that Griffith Joyner started working with coach Bob Kersee.

Florence Griffith Joyner was known for her flamboyant style

Olympic success

Florence Griffith Joyner first entered public consciousness at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, where she clinched a silver medal in the 200m.

Her flamboyant style attracted attention, but soon after the Games, Flo Jo put track and field on the back-burner.

She spent 1985 working at a bank, and styled hair and nails in her spare time. In 1987, she married Al Joyner, the reigning Olympic triple jump champion, and brother of famed athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Through this marriage, Bob Kersee became Griffith Joyner’s brother-in-law.

Griffith Joyner also returned to the track in 1987, finished second in the 200m at the World Championships that year.

Florence Griffith Joyner was married to Al Joyner

Everything changed in 1988. Coached by Kersee and Joyner, Flo Jo blew her opposition away with a world record time in the 100m at the US Olympic trials.

There is some controversy about this world record, with questions raised over the possibility of a technical malfunction with the wind gauge, which read at 0.0 m/s. The triple-jump anemometer, some 10 metres away, read 4.3 m/s, more than double the acceptable limit.

Nonetheless, the world record was ratified by World Athletics, and still stands today.

Once at the Olympics in Seoul, Griffith Joyner took home three gold medals, triumphing in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. She also earned a silver medal in the 4x400m relay.

Griffith Joyner was the name on everyone’s lips. She was named The Associated Press’ “Female Athlete of the Year” and Track and Field magazine’s “Athlete of the Year.”

Florence Griffith Joyner holds the women's 100m and 200m world records

Doping suspicions

Griffith Joyner announced her retirement in February 1989, citing new business opportunities away from the track.

She did indeed keep busy, designing the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers NBA team, serving as co-chair of President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and appearing on TV shows.

Griffith Joyner’s retirement attracted suspicion, however, as did her sudden ability to set world record times.

Fellow athletes expressed disbelief over Griffith Joyner’s dramatic improvement over a short period of time, and in 1989, former teammate Darrell Robinson claimed he sold her 10 mL of growth hormone for $2,000 (£1,500) in 1988.

Robinson never provided any evidence for his allegations. He was eventually shunned by the athletics community, which lead to the premature end of his career.

Joyner-Griffiths always insisted she never used performance enhancers, and according to CNN.com, the track and field star took and passed 11 drug tests in 1988 alone.

Florence Griffith Joyner earned four Olympic medals at Seoul 1988

The death of Florence Griffith Joyner

On September 21st, 1998, Griffith Joyner died in her sleep at home in California. She was aged just 38.

The unexpected death was investigated by the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner’s office, who determined the cause as suffocation during a severe epileptic seizure.

Griffith Joyner was found to have had a cavernous hemangioma, a congenital vascular brain abnormality that made her subject to seizures.

According to a family attorney, she had also suffered seizures in the years running up to 1998.

Despite her tragic death at such a young age, Griffith Joyner’s legacy lives on, not least in the two world records she still holds today.

Florence Griffith Joyner died aged 38
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