Today marks 25 years since the untimely death of Florence Griffith Joyner.
In her 38 years, she achieved some of the greatest accomplishments in track and field. In fact, some of her world records still stand — over three decades since they were first set.
To this day, Griffith Joyner remains the fastest woman ever recorded. Thanks to her spectacular performances as an Olympic medalist and her family ties to the sport, she was a household name at the height of her career.
This American track star set world records, became a sports icon and left behind an unforgettable legacy worth remembering.
Early life of Florence Griffith Joyner
Florence Delorez Griffith was born on December 21, 1959 in Los Angeles, California, the seventh of 11 children. After her parents divorced when she was four, her mother moved the family to Jordan Downs, a public housing complex in LA.
Griffith started running at age 7 and quickly became a standout sprinter. She went on to win the Jesse Owens National Youth Games two years in a row, at the ages of 14 and 15. At Jordan High School, Griffith competed in track and field, setting school records in the long jump and sprinting events.
After graduation, she headed off to California State University at Northridge. There she met Coach Bob Kersee, who would become instrumental to her career in professional athletics. Kersee led Cal State Northridge to consecutive NCAA Division I national championships in 1978 and 1979.
Although Griffith was a part of the 1978 championship team, she had to drop out the following year to support her family. She found a job as a bank teller that helped to bring in additional income.
In 1980, Griffith returned to college with the help of Kersee. He assisted her in getting the financial aid she needed to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he had started working as a coach.
Flo-Jo’s Olympic appearances
Griffith qualified for 100-meter final at the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials and placed just out of qualifying position for the 200-meter dash. Joining her at the trials were UCLA teammates Alice Brown and Jeannette Bolden, who had also transferred over from Cal State Northridge. Unfortunately, Griffith’s performance at the trials didn’t result in an Olympic appearance as the United States had initiated a boycott to protect the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
How many Olympics did Florence Griffith Joyner compete in?
Florence Griffith competed in two Summer Olympic Games, beginning with the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She qualified for the 200-meter dash, coming in second place at the U.S. Olympic Trials. When her U.S. teammate Evelyn Ashford had to withdraw from the 200-meter heats due to an injury, Griffith’s chances to earn a medal increased. Griffith’s second-place finish in the race earned her a silver medal.
Griffith made her second Olympic Games appearance in 1988. The year prior, she had married Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, brother of track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and brother-in-law to her coach Bob Kersee. She changed her name to Florence Griffith Joyner following their marriage, which developed into the nickname “Flo-Jo.” Al took over coaching duties for Florence, implementing an intense weight-training program to boost her speed.
At the 1988 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, Indiana, Griffith Joyner shattered the world record for the 100 meter, beating Evelyn Ashford’s previous record by 0.27 seconds. Her time, 10.49 seconds, was set in the quarterfinal race. She beat Ashford’s record two more times in the semifinal (10.70) and final race (10.61), and also qualified for the 200-meter dash, the 4 × 100 m relay and the 4 × 400 m relay.
Griffith Joyner went on to make history at the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics. In the semifinal race, she set the world record for the 200 meter at 21.56 seconds. Less than two hours later, she broke her own record in the final with a time of 21.34 seconds. Like her 100-meter time, this world record still stands to this day.
Ultimately, she took home gold medals in three events (100 meter, 200 meter and 4 × 100 m relay) and silver in a fourth (4 × 400 m relay) at the Seoul Olympics. She became track and field’s second-most decorated female Olympian in a single Games (Fanny Blankers-Koen’s had won four gold medals in 1948).
What medals did Florence Griffith Joyner win?
Florence Griffith Joyner won five Olympic medals during her appearances for Team USA at the 1984 and 1988 Games. Her Olympic record includes three gold medals and two silver medals.
1984 Olympic Games
- Silver: 200 m
1988 Olympic Games
- Gold: 100 m
- Gold: 200 m
- Gold: 4 x 100 m
- Silver: 4 x 400 m
In addition to her Olympic medals, Griffith Joyner earned two medals while representing the United States at the 1987 World Championships held in Rome, Italy:
- Gold: 4 x 100 m
- Silver: 200 m
Other awards and honors
Florence Griffith Joyner was a highly decorated athlete. Outside of her race medals and championship titles, she earned the following awards and honors:
- 1988 United Press International Athlete of the Year
- 1988 Sullivan Trophy
- 1988 Women’s Track & Field Athlete of the Year (preceded by Jackie Joyner-Kersee)
- 1989 United States Olympic Committee Award
- Served as the co-chair for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness from 1993 to 1998
- Inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1995
- International Jesse Owens Award
- German Golden Camera Award
- 1989 Harvard Foundation Award
- Honorary Ph.D. from American University in Washington
Did Florence Griffith Joyner use performance-enhancing drugs?
Due to her incredible sprint times logged at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, Griffith Joyner was suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. In addition to her times improving considerably in the span of a year, she had also developed a noticeably more muscular physique.
In 1989, Griffith Joyner’s former teammate Darrell Robinson reported that he sold her growth hormone. He had zero evidence to back up his claims, however, which contributed to his career in sports ending prematurely.
Griffith Joyner’s drug test results
Griffith Joyner vehemently denied the allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. She submitted to repeated drug testing during competition, and she never failed a single test.
The chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, Prince Alexandre de Merode, explained later that Griffith Joyner had been subjected to particularly rigorous drug testing compared to other Olympic athletes at the 1988 Games due to the doping rumors. Given that they were never able to detect any evidence of banned substance use, he stated: “We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her. We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion.”
Griffith Joyner maintained that her significantly improved times were due to her new weight training and distance running regimen. She had started a new training routine with Al Joyner after their marriage in 1987, and the increased focus on lower-body strength was likely a primary factor in her improved times. In addition, Griffith Joyner asserted that she had increased motivation to train and increase her speed following her silver medal win in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Some suspected that her retirement from the sport, which came just before the implementation of mandatory random drug testing in 1989, was strategically timed to preserve her legacy. However, she had never failed a drug test before, and she asserted that her choice had to do with wanting to start a family (her only child was born in 1990).
Other challenges to Griffith Joyner’s world-record times
Outside of the allegations of performance-enhancing drug use (which were never proven), Florence Griffith Joyner’s record-breaking race times were placed under intense scrutiny. Some found her times so unbelievable that they claimed the clock had malfunctioned or the wind may have assisted her speed.
On the day she broke the world record in the 100 meters at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, however, the electronics were found to be in working order and the wind gauge on the track read 0.0, indicating neither a head wind nor a tail wind. Reports from the day of the trials vary, with some noting that the air was still at the time of the race and others pointing to a high wind gauge reading at the nearby triple jump runway.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) commissioned studies which reported that there was likely an illegal tailwind at the time of the race. The International Athletics Annual of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians has noted that Griffith Joyner’s time was “probably strongly wind assisted, but recognized as a world record” since 1997.
The Joyner/Kersee track and field family
When Florence Griffith married Al Joyner, she helped form a sports family dynasty. At the time of their marriage, Griffith was just a year away from breaking two world records and a four-medal haul at the 1988 Olympic Games. Al Joyner had already earned the gold medal in the triple jump at the 1984 Olympics.
Al’s sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, had married Bob Kersee the year prior. Kersee was already a well-known coach for elite track and field athletes, including Florence and Jackie. He would go on to coach other top-tier athletes in the sport, including Allyson Felix, Michelle Perry, Joanna Hayes, Gail Devers, Greg Foster and Andre Phillips.
Jackie competed alongside Florence at UCLA and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, winning gold in the heptathlon and long jump. She would ultimately win a total of six medals in four Olympic Games and be named the Greatest Female Athlete of All-Time by Sports Illustrated for Women.
Jackie and Bob’s niece, Darnesha Griffith, was also a standout track and field athlete. In 2002, she became the fifth woman in NCAA history to win the high jump at both the indoor and outdoor championships and was ranked fifth in the U.S.
What was Florence Griffith Joyner’s family life like?
Florence and Al lived in California, eventually settling down in the Canyon Crest neighborhood of Mission Viejo. Not long after her retirement from track and field, she became pregnant. Their daughter, Mary Ruth Joyner, was born on November 15, 1990.
What are Flo-Jo’s nicknames?
The nickname “Flo-Jo” (and abbreviation of Florence Joyner) came about amid the intense media coverage of Griffith Joyner leading up to the 1988 Olympics. The name hadn’t been used for her previous Olympic appearance since, at the time, she was still Florence Griffith. She added “Joyner” to her name after her marriage in 1987.
Among family members, she was sometimes called “Dee Dee” in reference to her middle name, Delorez. This helped with differentiating her from her mother, who was also named Florence.
Flo-Jo’s style and fashion
Griffith Joyner was widely recognized for her bold and colorful personal style. On the day she set her world record in the 100 meter, she wore her hair down and donned one of her iconic one-legged bodysuits and 4-inch, brightly painted fingernails.
Her styling both on and off the track made her a fashion icon of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As she once said, “Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!”
In 1989, Griffith Joyner designed the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers NBA team. She also designed sportswear for several Japanese companies and the FloJo Olympic clothing line.
When today’s athletes (such as Sha’Carri Richardson) show stylish flair while competing, many see it as a nod to Griffith Joyner. Her style influence is admired in the Black community. Beyoncé dressed as Flo-Jo for Halloween in 2018, and Serena Williams wore an asymmetrical tennis unitard in honor of Griffith Joyner at the 2021 Australian Open.
Other activities outside athletics
Fashion and design weren’t Griffith Joyner’s only interests beyond the track. In addition to her talent for design, she also dabbled in makeup artistry and hair styling. Before her Olympic appearances, she often earned extra money by braiding hair.
After her retirement, she wrote children’s books and embarked on an acting career. She made appearances on shows like 227, Santa Barbara, The Nanny and Hang Time.
What was the cause of death for Florence Griffith Joyner?
Florence Griffith Joyner died in her sleep September 21, 1998. She had suffocated during a severe epileptic seizure at her home in in Mission Viejo, California. She was only 38 years old.
Some initially felt that her death at an early age could point to proof of performance-enhancing drug use. However, her autopsy revealed no drugs in her system besides small amounts of antihistamine and acetaminophen, two common over-the-counter drugs.
Instead, the autopsy revealed that Griffith Joyner had a congenital vascular brain abnormality called cavernous hemangioma which increased her risk of seizures. It was also revealed that she had previously suffered from seizures and sought treatment for them.
Florence Griffith Joyner’s incredible legacy has endured long after her tragic death at an early age. Today, she still holds the world record for the 100 meter and 200 meter.