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Dazzling Flo-Jo wins three golds


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 1999

The first things you noticed about Florence Griffith Joyner at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics were her jumpsuits and exotic fingernails -- assuming, of course, that you could see her long enough to notice anything.

She was that fast.

One of her Olympic outfits involved a turquoise bikini brief over a purple bodysuit, and a bare left leg, an ensemble she called a "one-legger." She painted three of her fingernails red, white and blue at Seoul, and painted a fourth gold.

Flo-Jo, as much phenomenon as track star, beguiled the world with her style and dazzled it with her speed, winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters and 4x100-meter relay.

And at an Olympics stained by Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's use of steroids, she raised some eyebrows.

She won the 100 meters in an Olympic-record 10.54 seconds (it would have been a world record, but she'd set that at 10.49 at the Olympic Trials), and was smiling, almost laughing, late in the race.

"I didn't see anybody coming up on me," she explained, "and I knew I wasn't going to let anybody catch me."

Four days later, she broke the 200-meter world record -- twice. In the semifinals, she eclipsed East German Marita Koch's 21.71 seconds with 21.56. In the final, she crossed the finish line in 21.34.

Before the Games ended, Flo-Jo ran a leg on the gold-medal 4x100-meter relay team and anchored the silver-medal 4x400 relay.

But they were mere afterthoughts to her singularly extraordinary performance in the 200 on Sept. 29, 1988.

"I don't think a female can beat her," teammate Evelyn Ashford said. Brazilian 800-meter gold medalist Joaquim Cruz went farther, saying in all seriousness after the 200 meters, "In my opinion, she is a man."

The implication was obvious, and it didn't sit well with Griffith Joyner. "I know what the rumors are about me and they are not true," she said. "I have never used drugs, I will never use drugs and I don't need to use drugs. They can come and test me every week of the year."

Al Joyner, Flo-Jo's husband and a triple jump gold medalist four years earlier in Los Angeles, was equally emphatic.

"My baby's a hero, not a villain," he said then. "Anyone who thinks she's on steroids doesn't know Florence. Nobody is more feminine."

She never failed a drug test and never stopped denying she had ever using drugs.

Still, when she died at 38 on Sept. 21, 1998 in her Mission Viejo, Calif., home, the insinuations of drug use that had dogged her in her days of triumph surfaced again.

The autopsy report concluded she suffocated during an epileptic seizure as she slept and toxicology tests showed Tylenol and Benadryl in her system, but nothing unusual.

"There was no indication of any drug or steroid use, past and present," a statement by the family said. "Her remarkable achievements remain unspoiled."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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