Jackie Joyner-Kersee was one of the most accomplished athletes ever to compete on behalf of the United States in the Olympic Games. Her early career triumphs in the long jump were the impetus to her sensational career as a heptathlete. Joyner-Kersee's victory in the Olympic heptathlon in 1988 earned her both international acclaim and the title bestowed upon her by the international media, that of the world's greatest female athlete.
Joyner-Kersee grew up in the 1960s in difficult circumstances in East St. Louis, Illinois, then one of the poorest cities in the United States. Her brother, Al Joyner, would also become a highly successful athlete, winning an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump.
Joyner-Kersee's talent as a multi-dimensional track and field athlete carried her into the national athletic spotlight in 1976 when she was 14 years old. Joyner-Kersee won the first of four consecutive American junior pentathlon championships (a five-event, truncated version of the Olympic heptathlon). Joyner-Kersee was also a successful high school basketball; when she graduated from high school, Joyner-Kersee received an basketball athletic scholarship from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Her athletic prowess was noticed by Bob Kersee, the track and field coach at UCLA.
It was Kersee who suggested in 1980 that Joyner-Kersee devote her athletic training to the heptathlon. By 1982, under Kersee's tutelage, Kersee had become sufficiently prolific at the seven heptathlon disciplines that she qualified for the 1982 world heptathlon championships. The heptathlon, the women' athletic equivalent to the decathlon, is comprised of the 100-m hurdles, the 200 m and 800 m races, combined with the long jump, high jump, javelin, and shot put.
Joyner-Kersee's rise to international prominence in athletics accelerated in 1984, when she won an Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon. Joyner-Kersee established a world record in the long jump in 1985, with a jump of 23 ft 9 in (7 m). In 1986 she set a new world record in the heptathlon at the Goodwill Games in Moscow, accumulating a total of 7,148 points; each event has its own point scoring scheme that is totaled in a complex calculation. In recognition of her world record performances, Joyner-Kersee was awarded the 1986 Sullivan Award as the United States' finest amateur athlete, as well as numerous other awards.
In 1986, Joyner-Kersee married her long time coach Bob Kersee.
Joyner-Kersee's return to the Olympics in 1988 touched off a run of success that has never been rivaled by a female track and field athlete. At the 1988 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee won gold medals in the both the heptathlon and the long jump, extending her world record heptathlon points total to 7,291 points. The Games were noteworthy on a number of levels, most particularly the explosive steroid scandal precipitated by the positive drug test of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. In this environment, the remarkable double Olympic gold medal achievement of Joyner-Kersee was not given the degree of media illumination it might otherwise have attracted.
Joyner-Kersee was also the subject of media commentary at Seoul that had nothing to do with her athletic performance. Significant publicity had been directed towards the public rift between her husband and coach, Bob Kersee, and his former protege, American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had married Joyner-Kersee's brother, Al Joyner; Al Joyner became Griffith-Joyner's coach.
At age 30, a point in the careers of many track and field performers when they have an extremely difficult time in maintaining elite performance levels, Joyner-Kersee repeated her gold medal performance at Seoul in the heptathlon at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. She also won a bronze medal in the long jump at those Games.
With the Olympic scheduled for Atlanta in 1996, Joyner-Kersee expressed her intense desire to compete in another Olympics on American soil; Atlanta would represent a fourth consecutive Olympics, a remarkable achievement in the world of multi-sport competitions such as the heptathlon. No athlete in the men's decathlon or the heptathlon had ever won a medal at 34, Joyner-Kersee's age in 1996.
At the Atlanta Olympics, Joyner-Kersee sustained a hamstring injury and she was forced to withdraw from the heptathlon. Joyner-Kersee was able to win a Olympic bronze medal in the long jump.
As the string of Olympics success enjoyed by Joyner-Kersee appeared to have ended at the 1996 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee continued to compete in track and field events, but she began to direct her primary attention to charitable causes and projects. Two key initiatives made by Joyner-Kersee included the Nike company PLAY (Participate in the Lives of American Youth) program, the raising of funds for local youth activity centers in East St. Louis, and the establishment of a scholarship fund, the Joyner-Kersee Community Foundation.
In 1998, Joyner-Kersee took what was a unique step for a track and field athlete by becoming a certified player agent with the National Football League Players Association. Joyner-Kersee created a sports management company in support of her work as a player agent to represent a number of athletes in a variety of sports. By the end of that year, Joyner-Kersee was the agent representing a number of NFL players.
Joyner-Kersee continued to successfully compete at an international level. In 1998, Joyner-Kersee won a gold medal in the heptathlon in the Goodwill Games. After this victory, she announced that she was retiring from sports, but the powerful hold of competition was not finally shaken until the 2000 United States Olympic trials, where Joyner-Kersee unsuccessfully attempted to make her fifth straight national team.
Joyner-Kersee continues with her various professional and charitable works following the 2000 Olympic trials. She established and maintaines a youth organization headquartered in East St. Louis, the Joyner-Kersee Boys and Girls Club.