Florence Griffith Joyner, ‘Flo Jo,’ track immortal and fashionista

Herb Boyd | 8/18/2016, 11:43 a.m.
Watching the Black women in preparation for the 100-meter and 200-meter races at the Olympics in Rio this week, some ...

Watching the Black women in preparation for the 100-meter and 200-meter races at the Olympics in Rio this week, some decked out in tights, hair extended in weaves or wigs, faces aglow in colorful makeup, it was easy to remember the presence of Florence Griffith Joyner. There was some semblance of Joyner’s persona, but in too many instances it was exaggerated, overdone and without her style and panache.

Nor did the runners come close to Flo Jo’s, as she was called, record-breaking speed. In comportment, dress and acceleration on the track, they were poor replicas of her glamor and dominance almost a score of years ago.

The cameras often focused on her six-inch nails or her form-fitting bodysuits, but once the gun sounded it was Flo Jo, the speed merchant, that commanded your attention.

Born Dec. 21, 1959, in Los Angeles, Florence Griffith was already demonstrating her amazing speed by the time she was 7. After her parents separated, she would often visit her father, who challenged her to chase jackrabbits on his property in the Mojave Desert. He recalled that she often caught a few. Back in L.A., she became a member of the Sugar Ray Robinson Organization, thereby perfecting her natural-born talents.

At 14, she won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games. Her track accomplishments continued at Jordan High School, where she anchored the relay team and also set school records in the long jump.

She briefly attended California State University at Northridge before transferring to the University of California Los Angeles.

In 1982, she was the NCAA champion in the 200-meter event. The next year she achieved a similar honor in the 400-meter race. A year later, she graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Griffith made her Olympic debut in her hometown in 1984. She won a silver medal in the 200-meter race, but it was here that she displayed the nails and bodysuit that would become her signature style.

In 1987, she married fellow athlete Al Joyner, the brother of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and put her racing career on hold. But soon she was back in training for the 1988 Olympics. Now, her trainer was no longer Bob Kersee, Jackie’s husband, but her own husband.

The decision proved rewarding because the hard work and training resulted in gold medals in three events in South Korea. She won her specialties—the 100- and 200-meter races—and brought home the gold in the 1×100-meter relay. She won a silver medal in the 4×400-meter relay.

Her astounding victories did not escape critics, many of whom suspected that her sudden rise to success was enhanced by drugs. No tests showed that she had ever used performance-enhancing drugs. She took and passed 11 tests in 1988. The clamor, however, was enough to make her withdraw from competition after her conquest at the Olympics where she established world and Olympic records in the 200-meter race that still stand. Earlier, during the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, she established the world record in the 100-meter.

In fact, viewers were reminded of the records—10.49 in the 100-meter and 21.34 in the 200-meter—with each race by the contestants in Rio.

Despite the controversy surrounding the suspicions, she was named the Associated Press “Female Athlete of the Year” and Track and Field magazine’s “Athlete of the Year.” She also won the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete of the year in 1988.

Although retired from active competition, she remained involved in athletics, mainly as co-chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1993. Also, she established her own foundation for children in need.

Flo Jo’s talents extended beyond the track, and in 1989 she designed the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers. Her artwork was often exhibited at various galleries, and she once performed on the soap opera, “Santa Barbara” in 1992, as a photographer.

There was at least one attempt to return to the track, in 1995, but it ended when she was unable to overcome the tightness in her Achilles tendon. Among her many accolades was her induction into the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1995.

Ten years later, on Sept. 21, 1998, Flo Jo, at 38, died unexpectedly after suffering an epileptic seizure. According to some reports, she was also found to have had a cavernous hemangioma, a congenital vascular brain abnormality that made her subject to seizures. A family attorney said she had suffered a tonic-colonic seizure in 1990, and had also been treated for seizures in 1993 and 1994.

In 2000, the 102nd Street Elementary School in L.A. that she attended as a child was renamed in her honor.