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Remembering Olympic gold medalist Florence 'Flo-Jo' Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith-Joyner celebrates with her gold medal after winning the Women's 100 meters final event during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Tony Duffy
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Allsport/Getty Images
Florence Griffith-Joyner celebrates with her gold medal after winning the Women's 100 meters final event during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner, better known as "Flo-Jo," died in her sleep on September 21, 1998.

Known for her style — long painted nails and colorful one-legged running suits — Griffith Joyner was also celebrated for being the fastest woman to run the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints.

The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul

Griffith Joyner broke the 100 meter world record with a time of 10.49 seconds during the Olympic qualifiers in 1988.

Griffith Joyner broke the 200 meter world record during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Griffith Joyner, Gwen Torrence and Evelyn Ashford were teammates for the USA Team and wore red and white leotards. Griffith Joyner was in lane five, wearing a gold bracelet on each wrist and gold earrings.

At the start of the race, as the camera focused on her face, she smiled. She crossed the finish line in 21.34 seconds to take the gold medal and set a new world record in the process. When the race was over, she kneeled on the ground and pressed her hands into the track, her long red, white, blue and gold-painted nails visible to the world.

Griffith Joyner won two more gold medals at the Seoul Olympics — in the 100 meter and the 4 x 100 meter relay events — and became a household name.

Florence Griffith-Joyner celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100 meters final event during the 1988  Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Mike Powell / Allsport/Getty Images
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Allsport/Getty Images
Florence Griffith-Joyner celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100 meters final event during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Her success helped her land endorsement deals in Japan as well as acting parts and cameos on American television — including the soap opera "Santa Barbara" and the sitcom "227." Griffith Joyner worked with LJN Toys, who marketed a doll in her likeness — long painted nails and one-legged running suit included.

Griffith Joyner's style and speed brought her international fame, but her performance at the Olympics would become clouded by skepticism. A year after the games, in 1989, a former American track athlete named Darrell Robinson told a European magazine that Griffith Joyner gave him money to buy her growth hormones.

Griffith Joyner denied the allegations, and told the New York Times, "It's all fabricated lies about drugs. I'd be a fool to take drugs."

In 1998, sports commentator John Feinstein told NPR's Morning Edition, "The rumors were there in 1988 in Seoul and I think the first thing to point out is that she never tested positive," he said.

"But she became a star late. She was 28 years old then ... Those rumors are always going to be there, and they were something she was asked about throughout her career, and which she always denied."

The medical commission for the International Olympic Committee says it conducted rigorous drug testing on Griffith Joyner during the 1988 Olympics — and she always tested negative.

Griffith Joyner spoke with journalist Ann Liguori in 1991 about the allegations: "I knew that I had never taken drugs so I didn't let that bother me when people said. I knew that it was a thing that was in the news," she said.

"People were looking for things to point fingers at athletes. I just tried not to take it personal and to just concentrate on the things I had to do and to move on."

Griffith Joyner retires from track

On Feb. 22, 1989, five months after the Olympic games in Seoul, Griffith Joyner announced her retirement from track.

When discussing her retirement with Liguori, Griffith Joyner said, "I retired in 1989 because I could no longer train 100%, in which I'm used to training. If I can't give it my all, I don't want to give it at all."

Griffith Joyner moved on with her life. She became a mom, pursued fashion design and continued to combine sports and style. She even designed the 1990 NBA uniforms for the Indiana Pacers.

Griffith Joyner displays her medals from the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. She won gold in the Women's 100, 200 and 4x100 meters relay and silver for the 200 meters.
Tony Duffy / Allsport/Getty Images
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Allsport/Getty Images
Griffith Joyner displays her medals from the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. She won gold in the Women's 100, 200 and 4x100 meters relay and silver for the 4x400 meters.

Griffith Joyner also served as the first female co-chair of the U.S. President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports — a federal advisory committee to promote health and physical activity — under former President Bill Clinton. At the White House in 1994, Griffith Joyner spoke about the importance of physical fitness.

"All of us have sometimes mouthed the excuse that we're just too busy, that we don't have the time to exercise or be physically active," she said.

"Well, if our busiest citizen, President Clinton, can make the time to run regularly, and become physically active, then I know there are ways for each one of us can find the time and make the time."

Flo-Jo's legacy

Griffith Joyner made an attempt to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But an injury prevented her from qualifying — and she never competed in the Olympics again.

Two years later, Griffith Joynerdied from an epileptic seizure caused by an abnormality of blood vessels in her brain.

After she died, allegations of performance-enhancing drugs resurfaced.

The IOC medical commission president Prince Alexandre de Merode released a statement about Florence Griffith Joyner after her death: "We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her. We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion."

Today, Griffith Joyner is enshrined as one of the greatest athletes in track for revolutionizing women's sprinting with both her speed and her fashion. And more than 35 years after her victories at the summer games in South Korea, she still holds the world records for the 100 and 200 meter sprints.

More moments in history

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 22, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous photo caption incorrectly said Florence Griffith Joyner won a silver medal for the 200 meters at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. In fact, she won silver for the 4x400 meter relay.
Ashley Montgomery