It’s 1988, and the Olympics have brought the world’s most talented athletes to the South Korean capital of Seoul. But among the gifted sportspeople, one star shines among the brightest: Florence Griffith Joyner, the runner affectionately dubbed Flo-Jo. After the games, she brought three gold medals home. But ten years later, her life took a tragic turn.
Born in December 1959 in Los Angeles, California, Joyner was one of 11 children. Her father, Robert, was an electrical engineer, while her mother Florence worked as a seamstress. Together, the family lived in public housing in the Watts neighborhood in the south of the city.
When Joyner was just seven years old, she developed a passion for running. And soon, it became obvious that she had a natural gift. In fact, when she was just 14, she enjoyed her first taste of success at the Jesse Owens National Youth Games. The following year, she won the event for a second time.
At Jordan High School in Los Angeles, Joyner continued her athletic career, setting records at the institution in long jump and sprinting. After graduating, she headed to California State University at Northridge, where she joined the track team. There, she was coached by Bob Kersee, a man who would go on to train a number of prominent stars.
In her first year, Joyner saw her team win nationals. But sadly her circumstances changed, and she was forced to drop out in order to provide for her family. However, in 1980, she enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles with the help of financial aid, where she found herself again training under Kersee.
There, Joyner really came into her own, winning both 200 and 400-meter events during her academic career. However, it was after graduating that Joyner became a real star. She made her debut at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, held in her home city of Los Angeles.
Although Joyner took home a silver medal for her performance in the 200-meter race, it was her appearance that really got people talking. Dressed in a skin-tight body suit, her manicured nails, long hair and jewelry set her apart from other runners. And soon, the press had dubbed the promising runner “Flo Jo.”
But despite Joyner’s success, she decided to take a break from running. She got a job in a bank and practiced as a hair and nail stylist instead. And in 1987 she married Al Joyner, an Olympic champion and the brother of Kersee’s wife Jackie. However, the following year she was back on form, traveling to Seoul in South Korea to compete in the 1988 games.
Even before the Olympics began, things were looking good for Joyner. In fact, she had set a world record during trials, running the 100-meter race in 10.49 seconds. Incredibly, it’s a time that remains unbeaten to this day. And with her six-inch fingernails painted red, white, blue and gold, Joyner arrived on the track ready for success.
Even though Joyner’s actual time during the 100-meter race was five seconds longer than her record-breaking trial, she won her first gold medal with ease. And during the 200-meter sprint, she achieved another world best, clocking in at just 21.34 seconds. For the Olympian, it meant another gold medal to take home – and another achievement that remains unbeaten even 30 years later.
Amazingly, Joyner added a third gold to her collection as part of the four-by-100-meter relay, as well as a silver for the four-by-100-meter event. Now an undisputed champion, she returned to the United States a celebrity, winning a number of titles and accolades over the following months.
However, Joyner’s fame was marred by rumors that her success might not have been entirely legitimate. Puzzled by the sharp improvement in the runner’s performance between 1984 and 1988 – not to mention her muscular form – some began to suspect that she may have been using drugs to improve her performance.
Even other athletes grew suspicious of Joyner’s achievements, including those who had competed alongside her at the Olympic Games. However, no drug test that she took ever returned a positive result. In fact, she took 11 in the year that she won her gold medals, with each one delivering a negative response, according to the Guardian.
Then in February 1989, just four months after Joyner’s incredible performance in Seoul, she announced her retirement, in order to focus on other opportunities. Meanwhile, in 1990, her daughter Mary was born. But although the Olympian spoke of returning to the track, she never again competed in professional sports.
However, Joyner remained active behind the scenes. And in 1993, she joined the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, where she served as co-chair. She also established the J.Y Joyner Foundation, which works to help vulnerable children. Meanwhile, the accolades continued. And in 1995, she earned a place in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
In the meantime, Joyner embarked on a fledgling television career, beginning with an appearance on the American sitcom 227. Later, she took a small role in Santa Barbara, a soap opera set in California. And in yet another string to her bow, she also designed the 1989 uniforms for the Indiana Pacers basketball team.
However, athletics remained Joyner’s true love. And in 1996 she told the American talk show host Charlie Rose that she was planning a return to the track. This time, she planned to take on the 400-meter race, with the eventual goal of acquiring a hat-trick of world records. But sadly, it was not to be.
With her right leg plagued by tendinitis, Joyner was forced to give up on her dreams. And in September 1998, she passed away in her sleep at the age of 38. According to the coroner, she had suffocated during an epileptic seizure. And although she had no illegal drugs in her system when she died, some athletes pointed to the tragedy as further evidence of alleged substance abuse.
After Joyner’s death, her sister-in-law Jackie spoke out against the accusations. “They should not degrade [Joyner’s] name and should allow her daughter, as she grows and develops, to realize the significance of her mother and what she contributed to track and field, and to women in sport in general,” she told the BBC in 2012.
Today, both a school and a park entrance in California bear Joyner’s name, continuing the legacy of the unbeaten record holder for future generations. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law Jackie hopes that positive memories of the athlete will ultimately outweigh any unfounded suspicions. “It’s easy for people to focus on the negative,” she admits, “but my intention was that my niece should know her mother was a great woman.”