Tracks of Her Tears: Florence Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith Joyner transformed women’s sprinting and lit up the 1988 Olympic Games. Tragedy would befall her at a young age, but that September in Seoul will remain forever Flo-Jo...

Tracks of Her Tears: Florence Griffith Joyner

You know you have speed to burn when even your name can’t keep up. She was born Florence Delorez Griffith four days before Christmas in 1959, but the world would come to know her — all too fleetingly, as it would turn out — as ‘Flo-Jo’. And she would change athletics the way Elvis changed music and then culture itself. 

Bruce Springsteen rhapsodised about the King in 2012, but he may well have been lauding the woman who first brought the hood to the track, the swagger to the starter’s pistol, and daylight to her competitors. “Elvis gave us full access to a new language, a new form of communication, a new way of being, a new way of looking, a new way of thinking — about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being,” Springsteen said at the South by Southwest festival. “Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday and there was today and there was a red-hot rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow before your very eyes.” 

You’ve got to remember that only three decades before Flo-Jo burst out of the starting blocks and into global public consciousness at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the winners of the 100 metres titles were raw-boned, pink-cheeked country Australian lasses with names like Betty Cuthbert. Lasses who smiled demurely on podiums with a polite, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe I won’ demeanour. 

Flo-Jo’s route to the track was a classic one. Hailing from the Watts projects of L.A., the talented teenager was scooped up by the college system — first California State University Northridge, then U.C.L.A. While still a student she qualified for the 100m in the boycotted 1980 Olympics, and four years later won a silver in the 200m at the L.A. Games. It was in 1987 and ’88, however, that the athlete who persuaded her high-school track team to style it up in tights instead of shorts “shook up the world”. 

Now married to the Olympic triple jumper Al Joyner — the ‘Jo’ in ‘Flo-Jo’ — and boasting a psychology degree to boot, she was ranked the seventh-best 100m sprinter in the United States before the U.S. Olympic trials. At a track in Indiana (the likes of such we will never see again), she covered 100 metres in 10.49 seconds — a new world record by 0.27 seconds. It was and continues to be a feat so improbable, so utterly beyond comprehension, that there’s more chance of Jake Paul winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry. She also set a new American record in the 200m, of 21.77 seconds. 

Her 100m result was viewed with suspicion. After all, it is still the largest improvement in world-record time since the advent of electronic timing. But it comes down to this: yes, she was lightning, but there was also an illegal tailwind of between 5m/s to 7m/s on the day. That said, since 1997, the International Athletics Annual of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians has listed it as “probably strongly wind assisted but recognised as a world record”. 

Getty Images.

Going into the Seoul Olympics, no athlete (with the possible exception of Carl Lewis) carried with them more expectation — or suspicion. What Griffith Joyner did to the records in Indiana she now inflicted upon her opponents. In the space of one meet, she took out the 100m, broke the 200m world record twice on the way to gold (with a time that no one has yet bettered), and contributed to the United States’ victory in the 4x100m relay. To top it off, in her first internationally rated 4x400m relay, she won a silver. 

That was the what she did, but it was the how that drew as much attention. 

Flo-Jo was not content to express herself during her races. No, she did it before and afterwards. On the track she rocked a hooded speed-skating suit, and in ’88 brought out a version where the right leg extended to the ankle and the left was cut so high on the thigh that you’d need a waxer on speed dial. And this was before the days of laser hair removal, so #respect. 

Colours like lime green and purple featured in her repertoire, as did lightning-bolt embellishments. Then there were the nails: we’re talking four inches long with tiger stripes, or red, white and blue with gold accents for the Olympics. If you’re going to hold up a middle finger to the haters, you might as well have some blinging nail art. 

In a sport measured in microseconds, where aerodynamics are paramount, the prevailing wisdom was to tie one’s hair back and minimise the drag that accessories could cause. ‘The hell with that,’ seemed to be Flo-Jo’s attitude. ‘I can beat all of you and look damn good doing it.’ She didn’t merely talk the talk. 

Then, just like that, she was gone. Four months after the Seoul Olympics, Griffith Joyner announced her retirement. Millions of dollars of endorsements came her way. As did a faint tang of scepticism overlaid with altogether more recognisable ones of racism. After all, here was a Black woman unapologetically conquering the world on her own terms. So there’s gotta be something suss going on... 

But here’s the thing. Those same blazers who harrumphed into their gin and tonics could never prove she cheated. And they were most likely going with the notion that she was guilty until proved innocent. That’s how good she was. We’ll conclude this section of the story with the words of Prince Alexandre de Merode, the late chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, who noted that Flo-Jo was singled out for rigorous testing during the 1988 Games. He noted, “We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her. We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion.” 

The freakish body that brought wonder to so many and had track officials doubting their watches would betray Flo-Jo in 1998. The mother of one died in her sleep on September 21 in California of a brain abnormality that causes seizures. We hope she went like she lived: quicker than anyone before her or after her ever has.