120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 38) : Flo Jo fairytale at Seoul 1988


Records are made to be broken. But in this special Olympic episode, let just talk about a couple of records that have remained untouched for the last three decades since their inception. The women’s fastest time records for the 100m and 200m still belongs to an American sprinter of the 1980s – Florence Delorez Griffith Joyner.

Born as Florence Griffith, the legendary sprint-queen later married former American triple jumper Al Joyner who too was an Olympic gold medalist.  Though Griffith qualified for the Moscow Games in 1980, the decision of the US government to boycott the event meant that she could only make her Olympic debut four years later at Los Angeles.

The 1984 Games at home however was quite a forgettable one for the American. Though she won solitary silver in the 200m sprint at the Games, she caught more attention with her six-inches long and silver coloured fingernails. Post Olympics, she married Al Joyner and spent more time off the tracks before she made a full-fledged return at the 1987 World Championships – bagging an individual 200m silver and the 4X100m relay gold.

It was, however at the US Olympic Trials the following year that the stylish sprinter stunned everyone with her performance. She constantly hit around the 10.60s mark in the 100m heats including a world-record shattering 10.49s in the quarter-final. The world record prior to the trials was 10.76s – hence an improvement of 0.27s. In fact, all the four races that she ran in the 100m were world records! In the 200m too, Griffith was close to breaking the 21.71s record mark, but however failed by a whisker several time. Though there is a major opinion that the events were favoured by strong winds across the stadium, the official wind calculator at the event ruled out evidence of any significant breeze at the time of these events in which Griffith delivered her jaw-dropping stunners. However, there was noted evidence of high-speed air currents at many other events in the venue.

As Flo Jo, she is being hailed as the favourite at the Summer Olympics at Seoul. The American super-woman known for her trends, had sported stylish bodysuits from time-to-time – one of which looked similar to those used by skaters while another one, self-dubbed as “one-legger”, comprised a bikini concise on a purple suit. And yes, her obsession with fingernails continued here as well. While three of her finger nails were coloured red, white and blue in correspondence to the American flag, the fourth finger sported a golden look signifying her golden ambition.

At Seoul, Griffith clocked 10.54s in the 100m final to beat her compatriot and previous world-record holder Evelyn Ashford by an overwhelming three-tenth of a second. And of course, Flo-Jo’s clock time in the final was an Olympic record. In the 200m heats, the American looked even more ominous. After clocking a lukewarm 22.51s in the first heat, she came more into her elements as the event progressed and broke the standing world record twice in a single day!

On September 29, the American speedstar clocked 21.56s in the semis before clocking an unimaginable 21.34s at the finals – beating her nearest rival by almost 0.38 seconds. This feat still stands a record today – with few athletes could reach near the 21.56s mark with the actual record of 21.34s remained a bridge too far to cross. Likewise her 100m record too remained untouched all these years.

Apart from the majestic double of 100m and 200m gold, Griffith went on to win a third yellow at the 4X100 m relay. However at the other team event of 4X400 m, the American team came second – and Florence Griffith ended the Games with 3 gold and a silver. Within four months of her enviable success, Flo-Jo bade adieu to the game.

Later in 1996 sighting the Atlanta Games at home, she tried to make a comeback in the 400m event. However, tendonitis in her right leg proved to be the non-negotiable impedance. She appeared in many television shows post her retirement from the track.

On September 21, 1998 the legendary sportswoman breathed her last at her California residence – the death owing to a severe epileptic seizure. Flo-Jo was suffering from a congenital brain abnormality which resulted in the fatal attack.

The American lived a trendy life both on and off the track. Be it her long-standing world records, her yellow metals at the Olympics or her more colourful suits and fingernails – cumulatively they boast of a lasting legacy. However, she had her shares of controversy. Many of her record-shattering events have been adjudged strongly wind-assisted – although the Federation sustained them in the record books. Many of her contemporaries alleged steroids being the secret behind her 1988 carnage. She, however, denied any illegal drug intake and neither the tests denied her defence.

Whatever be the case, Flo Jo will be loved and remembered for being “the fastest woman of all time”.

Photo by InSapphoWeTrust