Florence Griffith-Joyner is, arguably, the most successful female sprinter in history. A combination of phenomenal speed on the track and a flair for fashion made Griffith-Joyner, dubbed Flo Jo by the American media, the most visible Olympic athlete in the United States in the 1980s. Griffith-Joyner established world records in both the 100 m and 200 m distances, among other achievements during her career.
Since her sudden death at age 38 due to a seizure in 1998, the Griffith-Joyner legacy of track supremacy has been colored to a significant degree by the persistent allegations of her use of steroids and other performance enhancing substances.
Griffith-Joyner grew up in very difficult personal circumstances in the housing projects of Los Angeles. Griffith-Joyner demonstrated an early proficiency as a sprinter, with sufficient talent to secure a track scholarship to the University of California-Northridge in 1978. Griffith-Joyner quit both school and her track training the next year to assist in the support of her family. To that point in her career, there had been nothing in her results or attitude toward her track career that suggested that Griffith-Joyner would be a future Olympic gold medalist and world record holder.
Through the influence of her university track coach, Bob Kersee, Griffith-Joyner returned to both track training and her education, enrolling at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1979. Kersee coached Griffith-Joyner during her career at UCLA, where Griffith-Joyner forged a reputation as one of the premier collegiate sprinters, winning National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in both the 200m and the 400m distances.
Griffith-Joyner was selected to the United States Olympic team in 1984, when the city of Los Angeles hosted the Summer Games. With Kersee continuing as her coach, Griffith-Joyner won the silver medal in the 200 m event. After the 1984 Olympics, Griffith-Joyner retired from running and she did not compete for a period of three years. Griffith-Joyner resumed her training in 1987, in preparation for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
A noteworthy feature of the success enjoyed by Griffith-Joyner was the interrelationship in the careers of Griffith-Joyner and American Olympic and world record holder, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Griffith-Joyner had married Joyner-Kersee's brother, Al Joyner, in 1987. Joyner-Kersee married Griffith-Joyner's long time coach, Bob Kersee. Griffith-Joyner ultimately replaced Kersee as her coach with her husband Al Joyner, in advance of the 1988 Games.
In the United States Olympic qualifying meet in July 1988, Griffith-Joyner ran what remains the world record time in the women's 100 m, 10.49 seconds, a remarkable achievement given that Griffith-Joyner broke the existing record by 0.27 seconds. In a sport where records fall incrementally, by one and two hundreds of a second at a time, the Griffith-Joyner run represented not only the fastest 100 m time in history, it was also the greatest single race reduction of the world record time for the 100 m in history.
Griffith-Joyner continued her sprinting dominance at the Seoul Games. Griffith-Joyner won both the 100 m and the 200 m sprints en route to the capture of four Olympic medals in total, the greatest number of medals ever won at a single Summer Olympics by a female athlete. The media paid close attention to the various fashions worn by Griffith-Joyner on the track, a colorful series of outfits offset by her long and prominently colored finger nails. She was publicized during the Games as a bold, supremely talented athlete who went against the grain, but in a fashion that was cheerful non-conformist, as opposed to the making of a political or personal statement. Griffith-Joyner was portrayed as the modern mixture of female style and athletic substance.
As a result of her Olympic triumphs, Griffith-Joyner was named the United States female athlete of the year for 1988 by virtually every national media organization. Griffith-Joyner retired from competition after the 1988 Olympics. The critics of Griffith-Joyner regarding suspected steroid use pointed to the fact that Griffith-Joyner announced her retirement at the height of her fame and the peak of her apparent talent, soon after the International Amateur Athletics Federation, (IAAF), announced that it would be instituting a program of out-of-competition drug testing for elite level athletes. Griffith-Joyner remained out of the sports limelight until 1993, when she was appointed the co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
The rumors that Griffith-Joyner was using of performance enhancing drugs began to circulate at the Seoul Olympics. The fact that Griffith-Joyner had never failed a drug test of any kind became secondary to other events that transcended her triumphs at the Games. The most prominent story of the entire Games had been the shocking disqualification of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, winner of the men's 100 m championship, who had subsequently tested positive in a post race drug test for the presence of an banned anabolic steroid in his system. All sprinters were now subjected to significant media commentary regarding drugs used, a scrutiny that appeared to carry with it a strong measure of cynicism; many observers believed that most, if not all Olympic sprinters were ingesting some form of performance enhancing substance.
In 1989, Darrell Robinson, a former United States national 400 m champion, indicated that he had sold a human growth hormone (HGH) to Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Griffith-Joyner denied the allegation, as she did any other suggestions that she had ever used any form of illegal drug. The manner of Griffith-Joyner's death served to contribute to performance enhancing drug use speculation, as Griffith Joyner died suddenly in her sleep of asphyxiation caused by an epileptic seizure, at age 38 in 1998. The manner of Griffith-Joyner's death fueled a new round of speculative comment that Griffith-Joyner's suspected use of performance enhancing drugs had contributed to the untimely death of this athlete. An autopsy performed on Griffith-Joyner's body that did not reveal any direct evidence of the use of performance enhancing substances did not stem the speculative tide.
It is unlikely that the rumors surrounding Griffith-Joyner concerning drugs can ever be definitively answered. Her world record in the 100 m has survived many challenges since 1988, and Griffith-Joyner's Olympic achievements secured her place in the history of track and field.