The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was a combination of unprecedented athletic achievement and the controversy of performance enhancing drugs in sport at the highest level. One name that will forever be associated with the former as well as tainted by allegations of the latter is American Florence Griffith-Joyner who had gone from being a good sprinter to becoming a world-beating unstoppable speed machine in the space of only a few months.
Florence Griffith was born in California and raised in the Jordan Downs public housing complex. Her athletics career almost came to a standstill early on as she was forced to take a job as a bank teller to support her family. Later though funding was secured to allow her to go back to the track full-time and she showed much promise as a sprinter managing to qualify for the 1980 Olympics, however the US decided to boycott the games and she never got the chance to compete. At the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 she won a silver medal in the 200m and came to the world’s attention more through her long decorated fingernails and flashy personal style than her achievement on the track. She married the 1984 triple-jump champion Al Joyner in 1987.
During the trials for the 1988 Seoul Olympics Griffith-Joyner caused a sensation when, known as a 200m runner she ran in the quarter-finals of the 100m in a time of 10.49, smashing the world record by an unbelievable 0.27 seconds. The time was ‘probably wind assisted’ but for some reason the wind meter on the race had failed to register any wind at all and the record stood. The reaction was one of suspicion, Flo-Jo, as she had now become known, had never been considered an exceptional 100m sprinter, she had won the 100m Grand Prix in 1985 with a time of 11.00, but this sudden surge in performance led many to suggest that drugs were responsible.
Apart from the improvement in her times she appeared to be dramatically different physically, far more muscular and defined. Her previously feminine appearance had become more masculine looking and critics suggested that she must be taking steroids, pointing to the heavy make-up she wore, a practice often used to mask the pock-marked skin of the steroid user – a claim she vigorously denied to the end of her days. Fl-Jo always claimed that her new physique was down to a new health programme and new training which focused on more lower body strength.
At the Olympics in Seoul ,Flo-Jo was all-conquering, taking gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and silver in 4x400m. As drugs became the biggest story of the Seoul Olympics Flo-Jo was under heavy scrutiny by the authorities and was tested many times over the course of the tournament, she never once failed a test. The aftermath of the games was filled with allegation and counter allegation, many of America’s Olympic community, including Carl Lewis, claimed to have inside knowledge that supported rumours of her drug use. Her record for the 100m still stands today and shows no sign of being bested.
Whatever was said about her though, Flo-Jo never failed a drugs test and always claimed the authorities could test her whenever they wanted. For many though her achievement was just too incredible, to have improved so much in such a short time to become probably the greatest women sprinters of all time. Flo-Jo retired form athletics in 1989 at the age of 29, incidentally just before the introduction of random drug testing. In 1996 Florence Griffith-Joyner died unexpectedly in her sleep, the coroner ruled she had suffocated on her pillow during a severe epileptic seizure. Under strict instruction left by Flo-Jo, her body was tested for evidence of drug use – none was found. Perhaps this was the ultimate vindication for the sprinter.
There is no denying that her performance at the Seoul Olympics is breathtaking, watching her power away from the pack on the straight towards the finish is impressive, even by today’s standards. If it really is legitimate it is one of the defining moments of the Olympic era, however the long shadow of steroid use will forever be cast on her achievements.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty