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Black History Month: Florence Griffith Joyner Smashed Records and Stereotypes

This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Florence Griffith Joyner.

Florence Griffith Joyner ran like no woman had ever run before. Or since. Her times in the 100m and 200m dashes remain a world record to this day.

Griffith ran those times before and at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul—the event that made her a household name. 

The closest anyone has ever gotten to her earth-shattering, 10.49 second 100m record are Carmelita Jeter (10.64) and Marion Jones (10.65), who admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in 2007 and had her medals stripped. Even so, Griffith raced better than her closest competitor at 10.64 seconds at three different meets.

The story is the same with the 200m, an event that Griffith holds two world records in. The closest time to Griffith's 21.34 and 21.56 world-record marks is Jones's 21.62. 

Griffith did it with notable flair, too. In an age where runners were told, strictly, not to wear their hair long, wear jewelry or grow long nails, Flo Jo did just those things. It didn’t make her any slower, as coaches of the era would've claimed. She was the fastest runner in the world and she was going to act like it. Four-inch, decorative nails. One-legged leotards. Long, flowing hair. It didn't matter.

She became such a fashion icon that, after Griffith retired from track in 1989, she was commissioned by the Indiana Pacers to design their uniforms. The “Flo-Jo’s,” as they were lovingly named, are still an icon of 90s basketball, reminiscent of Reggie Miller’s eight points in nine seconds and the team's battles with the Knicks. 

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Griffith didn't set her records without controversy, however. Multiple allegations of performance enhancing drug use were lobbed her direction. A former teammate claimed he sold Griffith human growth hormone (HGH). 

Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford even felt a tint of suspicion while covering the 1988 Olympic Games. 

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"In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, I saw a side-by-side video of Flo-Jo from 1984 and that present time," he said on NPR in 2013. "She looked and sounded like a different person. The comparison was so shocking that the producer told me he feared it would be an ugly bombshell back in the USA, if such incriminating evidence were shown about an American heroine. So NBC shelved the tape."

Ultimately, no evidence was ever found and, despite a rigorous drug testing program before and after her Olympic meets in 1984 and 1988, she passed every single one administered. The chairman of the IOC's medical commission for 35 years, Alexandre de Mérode, was adamant that Griffith was wrongfully targeted. 

"We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her," de Mérode said after the 1988 Olympics. "We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion."

Griffith was part of a family that became track royalty. She married Al Joyner, gold medal winner in the triple jump during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Her sister-in-law was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an all-time great in the heptathlon and long jump who won six Olympic medals. 

Griffith died of an epileptic seizure in 1998. She had been treated for three seizures throughout the 1990s. She was 38. 

From the SI Vault:

"The Spoils of Victory," by Kenny Moore (April 10, 1989)

"A Special Fire," by Kenny Moore (Oct. 10, 1988)

"Olympian Changes," by Frank Deford (Oct. 10, 1988)

"Florence Griffith-Joyner (1959-98)," by Tim Layden (Sept. 28, 1998)