KNOW YOUR RUN HISTORY – Flo Jo: The Lady in The Place Who Sprints With Grace

By Curtis Caesar John

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Florence Griffith-Joyner was, and arguably still remains, one of the most treasured runners in all history.  

Holder of the 100m (at 10.49 sec.) and 200m (at 21.34 sec.) records since 1988, the woman known affectionately as Flo Jo had a speed that surpassed her style and beauty, both of which she had in a high degree.  Sadly, this running feat is also clouded in controversy and conjecture.

The 1980’s was a hallmark time in United States athletics.  Magic and Bird were the NBA rivals everyone loved while Michael Jordan was primed to take over, dominating the scoreboards. In the NFL the Chicago Bears finally won their only Super Bowl with their stars Walter “Sweetness” Payton and William “‘the Refrigerator” Perry (alongside a hit rap song “The Super Bowl Shuffle”), and the 1984 Summer Olympics, hosted in Los Angeles, was dominated by the home country with 174 of the 474 awarded medals with huge wins in gymnastics, basketball, and track & field (though yes, the Soviet Union-bloc did boycott the games).  

That golden energy carried through to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea where the US again dominated in track and field.  Earlier that summer, both Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Griffith-Joyner’s sister-in-law) smashed records in the Olympic trials for the 100m and heptathlon, respectively, but after only capturing the silver medal in the ‘84 games (which wasn’t horrible), Flo Jo, first wins the 100m running the three fastest legal women’s 100m races in history up to that point (10.49, 10.70, 10.61), then in the 200m beat the world record at 21.77.

By the time the Olympic Games came, Flo Jo would take gold in the 100m, 200m (beating her own record first by 0.15 sec., then later that day beat that in the final by another 0.22 sec.), and in the  4x100m relay, and silver in the 4x400m (she was added to the latter only 48 hours before the heat).  

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If all this wasn’t great enough, Flo Jo looked fly beating her competition.  She designed all her outfits, wore jewelry, long hair, and 5”-plus length nails.  A true track star!  The next year, her cool fashion sense would lead her to start her own clothing line and she even designed the uniforms for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.  

However, the controversy came from Griffith-Joyner seemingly becoming ‘the woman’ out of practically nowhere. Yes, she made the Olympic team four years earlier, but semi-retired from the sport in 1986 and began working in a bank, styling hair, and designing clothes.  Returning for the 1987 World Championships, she earned another silver medal in the 200 while also helping the US 400 relay to gold, then continued to do better and better.  

With her now rippling physique, remarkably different from years before, and according to some, huskier voice, Flo-Jo was accused of taking performance enhancing drugs.  Still, she passed all of her drug tests. Every single one.  

According to a 2012 article in The Guardian, “Flo-Jo claimed that her improvement was down to altered technique, improved diet and total dedication to training, particularly in the gym. She said she had talked at length with [Ben] Johnson and had modeled her training regime on his…“If you want to run like a man, you have to train like a man,” she said.”  Ironically, Johnson, one of Flo-Jo’s accusers also won gold in the men’s 100m, only to have it stripped away after he was found to have PEDs in his system.  

Flo Jo unexpectedly passed away in her sleep in 1998, just 10 years after lighting the world on fire.  She died while suffocating during an epileptic seizure and an autopsy ultimately found that she suffered from a congenital vascular brain abnormality that made Joyner subject to seizures.  Tragic, but her legend still stands.

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