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Wednesday, September 23, 1998

Speed, glamour, doubt will be FloJo's legacy

REUTERS  
NEW YORK, SEPT 22: Florence Griffith Joyner made an indelible mark on the world of athletics, both through appearance and performance, but her achievements will be forever clouded by suspicions of drug use.

In a glorious 1988 she won Olympic gold in the 100, 200 and 4x100 metres relay but it was her amazing times more than her medals that marked her as one of the greatest sprinters in history.

In the quarter-finals of the US trials in Indianapolis in July that year she recorded an astonishing 10.49 seconds for the 100 metres-- creaming an unheard of 0.27 seconds off compatriot Evelyn Ashford's 1984 mark of 10.76.

There was talk of an illegal wind and faulty gauge -- it timed the following wind as 0.00 mph -- but the record stood.

Two months later she erased any doubts -- at least about wind assistance -- when she won the Olympic final in 10.54, smiling all the way to the line.

The nearest anyone has come to it since was Marion Jones's 10.65 this month.

Before the 1988 season, Griffith Joyner'sbest time was 10.96 seconds -- not even in the then best 40 marks of all time.

In the 200, she demolished the World Record not once but twice in less than two hours en route to Olympic gold.

Her pre-1988 best of 21.96 did not rate in the top 20 runs on the all-time list.

Yet in the Olympic semifinal and final, Joyner slashed an outrageous 0.37 seconds off the previous mark shared by East Germans Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler. Her successive runs of 21.56 and 21.34 seconds demolished a record which had stood for nine years.

The awesome improvements, particularly in coming days before Ben Johnson's positive drugs test, inevitably raised suspicions that she had been aided by drugs.

Constantly badgered on the question, she said: ``I am totally opposed to drugs,'' adding that she supported the introduction of random testing without warning both on and off the track.

She insisted her own improvement was entirely due to hard work and determination, a line followed by her husband Al Joyner.

DiscussingFlo-Jo's muscular physique, Joyner said: ``Someone said my wife looks like a man. He's obviously never seen my wife.''

Certainly there had never been any doubt about her ability to catch the eye.

Born in Los Angeles in 1959, the seventh of 11 children, Plain Florence Griffith was fast as a teenager but financial pressure prevented her from developing her talent.

She was rescued by sprint coach Bob Kersee, who helped her to UCLA on a track scholarship.

In her early years, it were her wildly-painted six-inch fingernails and striking looks rather than her speed that got her into the newspapers -- despite her winning a 200 metres silver medal in the 1984 Olympics boycotted by the Soviet bloc.

The next two years failed to produce any major progress and it was not until later, when she was married to 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, that she began to dream of the big time.

She consulted Johnson for advice on starting and weight-training and endlessly studied videos of him and Carl Lewis in abid to combine the Canadian's strength and her compatriot's relaxed running style.

She was improving her times and spending ever-more time designing lurid outfits, usually changing for each round of racing, guaranteeing maximum coverage wherever she went.

As the nails grew longer, and more brightly painted, she became known to all as ``Flo-jo'' and brought showbiz to the previously unglamorous world of women's athletics.

It all came to the boil in Seoul, where her performances would have been the number one story but for the Johnson doping scandal.

She ended the 1988 season in Tokyo running in a vivid pink stripe, with one leg covered and the other bare -- and of course winning in a ``pedestrian'' 10.91.

The future was wide open -- she talked of defending her titles at Barcelona, of moving up to 400 and, at one point, even trying the marathon.

However, by February 1989, Joyner stunned the sport by retiring -- on the eve of the introduction of mandatory random drug testing.

But instead of a lifeof luxury as a hall of famer, she spent the subsequent years protecting her innocence in the face of relentless doping inferences.

Unlike her mentor Johnson, Griffith Joyner never failed a drugs test and that was enough for some.

But the doubts always remained, and not just with those who were behind her 10 years ago.

Speaking in 1995 about Flo-Jo's marks, compatriot and 200 metres then-world champion Gwen Torrence, said she `did not acknowledge those records.'

``To me they don't exist and women sprinters are suffering as a result of what she did to the times in the 100 and 200,'' said Torrence.

They are still suffering.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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