Last summer Florence Griffith Joyner was eking out $18,000 a year by filing invoices for Anheuser-Busch, Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., and braiding the hair of friends. Then at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in July, coated with purple Lycra except for one leg left artfully bare, she obliterated Evelyn Ash-ford's 100-meter world record of 10.76 with a time of 10.49.
Not long afterward, at the Lumley Castle Hotel near Gateshead, England, Griffith Joyner and her husband, Al, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, met with Gordon Baskin. their new personal manager. Baskin, 65, is a small man with a voice of oil and sweet reason. Now he looked as if he had on saddlebags, so overflowing were his suit pockets with balled-up phone messages.
"The offers are rolling in to run, to do commercials," Baskin told them. "If you race in the European meets in late August and do spot endorsements along the way, why, in two-and-a-half weeks you can make several hundred thousand dollars. But if you do, you'll cut into your Olympic focus. So, which is it to be?"
"That gold," said Al without hesitation, "is fool's gold."
April 9, 1989
"Let's go home and train," said his wife.
Six weeks later in Seoul, Griffith Joyner won the Olympic 100 and 200 meters (the latter in a world record 21.34), ran on the U.S.'s winning 4 X 100-meter relay team and anchored the U.S. to silver behind the Soviet Union in the 4 X 400 relay. With that last, unexpected effort—she was not scheduled to enter the event—Griffith Joyner surpassed Wilma Rudolph and Valerie Brisco to become the most decorated female sprinter in U.S. Olympic history. Then she and Al unleashed Baskin to make them rich.
"I gave them a cautious estimate of how much they might make by the end of 1989," says Baskin, who, instead of parting with the actual figures, resorts to elliptical teasers. "That amount was exceeded a full year early." Baskin will add only that the Joyners are set for life.
We'll get to the recent, hectic living of that life in a second, but obviously this continuing jackpot would not have been possible had Griffith Joyner not touched a chord in a great many people. She was not the most publicized athlete who competed in Seoul—poor pilloried Ben Johnson was—but she seems to have emerged covered with commercially useful fame. Her midrace rejoicing, her exotic beauty and her elaborate stylishness fired more imaginations than did the thoughtful balance of Matt Biondi (who has yet to strike a major endorsement deal), the puppylike normalcy of Janet Evans (who has forsaken commerce for school), the courageous control of Greg Louganis or even the unfailing sweetness of Griffith Joyner's sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
No black female athlete has ever been in Griffith Joyner's position. None has come close to the endorsement millions thrust on Mark Spitz in 1972, Bruce Jenner in 1976 or Mary Lou Retton in 1984. Rudolph won the three sprint golds in Rome in 1960, was leggy and attractive and had overcome polio in her youth. Yet she found no commercial avenue at all. Twenty-four years, a civil rights revolution and a women's movement later, Ashford and Brisco did little better after the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Yet Griffith Joyner has connected with such a wide audience that she seems a cultural phenomenon. The lesson seems to be that pure sporting attainment is not enough to make a black woman a star; athletic achievement must be accompanied by something else. Over the years the idea that sport is un-feminine was only slowly worn down, first by comely tennis players, swimmers, gymnasts and—almost by sequined definition—figure skaters. Later, runners and basketball players expanded the range of sports that didn't necessarily kill femininity. Aerobics helped. Yet as 1988 began, plenty of that old tension between traditional demure ladyhood and high performance remained imbedded in the American consciousness. Then Griffith Joyner painted her nails, put on a white lace body stocking and won the Olympic trials 200 in 21.85.
In those 22 seconds of glitzy glory, the message beamed by the streaking Griffith Joyner was: You can dress like Madonna and run as fast as O.J. Simpson and nobody will laugh. Hers was a crossover triumph. Griffith Joyner's 1,000 fan letters a week show her to be about equally admired by the Cosmopolitan-Vogue fashion crowd and by little girls who hunger for her to coach them.
Griffith Joyner is quick to point out that she didn't choose her racing styles to revolutionize anybody's view of women. She has, since childhood, simply pleased herself by wildly altering her appearance. She took the Olympic 200-meter silver medal back in '84 running with six-inch, bloody-scimitar nails. But that pales in comparison with the stylish and stunning performances of last summer that made Griffith Joyner a heroine to all women who struggle to reconcile feminism and glamour—and for everyone who wants to find those women and sell them something.
Japan grabbed her first. A commercial for a temporary employment company begins with a shot of Griffith Joyner's peacock nails. Then, as she sprints across the screen, a male Japanese voice intones, "To overtake your dreams, energy is important now." Next, Griffith Joyner says, "I love myself. Love yourself." Her smile is a little crooked, as if acknowledging how goofy this sounds as a pitch for office help.
"In Japan, English, even if it's only partially understood, has a charm all its own," says Tokyo journalist Nancy Matsumoto, apropos of Mitsubishi Electric of Japan's ad showing Griffith Joyner running around the L. A. Coliseum track while her voice is heard explaining in English how beauty, fun and breaking one's own record go together. No translation is offered. "One way or another," says Masahiro Suekuni of Mitsubishi, "people will understand."
That hope has also moved Mizuno Corp. to hire Griffith Joyner to design and promote running shoes, and Nichiban Corp., a bandage and pharmaceutical manufacturer, to put her in commercials for its sports-related goods. Baskin has just concluded a licensing agreement with another company (he doesn't want to give its name yet) for a Florence Joyner line of upscale Japanese sports clothes and accessories. These are not to be confused with Mizuno's By Flo-Jo label. These five Japanese deals, according to a probably conservative source close to the Joyner camp, have brought Florence on the order of $2 million.
U.S. businesses have taken a little longer to come around. One reason: Advertisers are afraid of having their products linked with an Olympics marred by the Johnson drug scandal.
Griffith Joyner's feats came under two specific attacks. Carl Lewis, apparently thinking he was speaking off the record to University of Pennsylvania students in December, indicated that he believed Griffith Joyner took steroids. "I know from some very reliable sources," said Lewis. "I really don't think we should blame Florence. I think it's the situation of her former coach [apparently Bob Kersee—though Lewis's manager, Joe Douglas, later insisted Lewis was not referring to Kersee]. I think he should be out of the sport, because I believe he tries to put everyone he knows on drugs."
Then in March, during the Canadian government's inquiry into drugs and sports, which is still in progress, Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, testified that many track world records had been set with the aid of steroids. He did not accuse Griffith Joyner by name, but he illustrated his case with a graph showing the improvement in the women's 100-meter mark.
Griffith Joyner calmly and repeatedly denies drug use. She leaves the real fulminations to Baskin. Of Lewis, he has said, "[Carl] is trying to rob the children of the world of a role model who has achieved this athletic excellence through diligent, tenacious work rather than steroids."
Recently Baskin said, "And Charlie Francis was part of a conspiracy of conceit. He's a drug dealer who put kids in a situation they'd never be in except for his persuasion. Why should a guy like that be believed? He picked Florence to drag down because she stands the highest."
Baskin still has the distracted air of a man who has calls to return, because a healthy number of American and European businesses have decided that Griffith Joyner is all right. She has contracts with Proxy shoes, Agfa film, Toshiba America copiers, Sally Hansen nail products and LJN Toys, Ltd. These deals, together with the Japanese endorsements, have lifted her income since the Olympics into the $4 million range.
This summer, LJN plans to introduce a doll called Flo-Jo, which will have press-on decal nails, hair that can be styled and a one-legged sprint suit. Naturally a dozen Griffith Joyner-designed outfits will be sold separately. "LJN wants to compete with Barbie," says Baskin. "Last year Mattel did $470 million in Barbie sales."
Baskin fades out for a moment while the mind gets its breath back after being hit by such a number. "LJN is a wholly owned subsidiary of MCA/Universal," he says. "The strength of this deal is the promotion that can be done by MCA."
The strength of this deal is that there is a half-billion-dollar market for a doll. "There was money up front, of course," says Baskin, "but the real value of this contract is the percentage she gets from every doll sold. And the more dolls sold, the higher her percentage."
LJN has told Baskin that market tests and toy fair responses have been good and that the company will be pleased if the Flo-Jo doll approaches 10% of Barbie's take. That would be $47 million. If Griffith Joyner has even a 10% royalty, that would be $4.7 million. A year.
"Florence wants the doll to have her values and interests," says Al, expressing the hope that a real role model can outdraw a fictitious fashion plate. "Where Barbie has dull old Ken, Flo-Jo has sweet, lively Al."
And she takes him everywhere. Florence has been a traveling fool since Seoul, filming ads, making speaking appearances for as much as $20,000 a pop, doing guest spots on TV shows, taking screen tests, starting a bicycle race in West Germany and accepting honors, including the Jesse Owens Award as 1988's outstanding track and field athlete and the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.
LORD, GRANT ME THE PATIENCE TO ENDURE MY BLESSINGS says a sign over the sink in the Joyners' small town house in Newport Beach, Calif. "I've been sleepy for five months," says Griffith Joyner. "I used to get to a hotel and go work out, no matter what time it was. It was a rule. Now all I want to do is sleep."
She had vowed to attack Marita Koch's 400-meter world record of 47.60 this summer, and through the winter she did many brisk strides up and down hotel corridors past quizzical guests in evening dress. Inevitably, however, the truth began to dawn. "I was denying reality," she says. "I refused to believe I couldn't get in shape on the road. After the Jesse Owens Award, I realized I had to decide. I cried about it, but I decided."
In late February, she announced her retirement from racing. She swears it's final. "I'm not going to think about all the what-ifs," she says, as if ordering herself. "No regrets. Mom said it's good. Dad wanted me to retire in '84."
She's quiet for a second and continues, "I miss it more than I ever thought I would. Within five years I'm going to be running a marathon. To win."
Al, who plans to run the 110-meter hurdles this season, laughs in horror at this last pronouncement and inquires into how many children they will have by then. "O.K.," she says, "but when I have the time to put in the mileage...."
When she has the time. That's the phrase of the year. When Griffith Joyner lists priorities, her more reflective yearnings take precedence. "Writing is first," she says. She has hired two of her sisters to deal with fan mail and a third to help her prepare illustrations for her series of children's books. "The writing is there," she says. "It's the pulling it all together that takes time."
Some of Griffith Joyner's Japanese sponsors were startled by her retirement. "We are disappointed," says Yoshio Asahi of Nichiban. "It was so sudden." Says Masato Narita of Mizuno, "It's very unfortunate. We would have liked her to persevere a little more." Baskin placates them by pointing out that her ads have markedly boosted their sales.
Griffith Joyner's fame has removed her financial incentive to run. She's worth more as a symbol. "The Tokyo track meet [on May 14] has offered her more for coming and smiling than she would have gotten for performing," says Baskin.
That this development might have a melancholy aspect seems lost on Baskin, whose true sport is business. "He's amazing," says Al. "He enjoys negotiating. It's fun to him."
For almost six years Baskin negotiated such sensational race-appearance fees for hurdler Edwin Moses that meet promoters sometimes wailed that they had no money left to pay his opposition. Al was impressed, and when he and Florence decided last summer to leave their coach and manager, Al's brother-in-law, Kersee, they sought out Baskin.
Baskin and Moses operated with only a handshake agreement (the Joyners and Baskin have an ironclad pact stretching into eternity), but according to Moses, part of that agreement, which Moses says he stressed late in 1987, was that Baskin handle no one else. "With the Olympic year coming up," says Moses, "it would take too much of his time."
"Before Gordon took us on," says Al, "he said he had to ask Edwin."
"First," says Baskin, "I had made no agreement not to represent anyone but Edwin. But I went to where he was working out on the Irvine [Calif.] track and asked what he thought. He said something like, 'I really don't care.' "
But Moses says he did care. "It came as a shock," says Moses' wife, Myrella, "when we read in USA Today on the plane to Europe [in August] that Gordon had gone with her."
The trouble came "at the most inopportune time," says Moses. Twice the Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion, he did not run his best race in Seoul and finished third. "It wasn't personal with Florence," he says. "It was business, strictly business."
So in this messy fashion, the Joyners gained an agent as colorful in his way as Florence is in hers. Baskin came late to sport. A 1948 graduate of UCLA, he has been a commercial banker and a hotel owner. In 1987, Baskin collected a $2.7 million judgment from several former partners, including Johnny Carson, whom he had sued to recover his share of the profits from the sale of a Las Vegas TV station.
For all his success and contacts, Baskin can sometimes project an air of near-comic distraction, as when he absentmindedly pockets a restaurant check after signing it. The Joyners' travel plans for each month are charted on a single calendar page, which he consults and amends and folds until it falls to pieces. "That man sent us all over the world to the wrong places at the wrong times," says Myrella. "We learned to reconfirm our appointments." This the Joyners already do.
But Baskin rightly points out that he is far from crucial to Griffith Joyner's success. "Lots of people could do what I've done," he says. "I'm just a conduit for the demand." Dropping Norman Lear's and Stephen Cannell's and Sidney Poitier's names all over the kitchen, he speaks of TV pilots, ideas for children's shows and Agent 007-type parts. To date, though, Griffith Joyner's screen career has been limited to a few TV guest appearances.
But Griffith Joyner can pick up new things in a hurry. Take skiing. Baskin lives in Incline Village, Nev., and in February he invited the Joyners up for five days on the slopes. Neither Al nor Florence had ever skied. "We had a teacher," says Florence, "and Al, uh, needed extra attention, so I went on up to the higher slopes. I fell a couple of times and didn't hurt anything. Down below Al fell, what, about 300 times?"
"Three hundred fifty," he says.
"So I went even higher and faster," says Florence.
By the second day she was plunging straight down the steepest inclines without poles, barely missing trees and cliffs, while Al futilely screamed warnings at her. "I love the speed," says Griffith Joyner. "I'd have skied a long time ago if I'd known it was that fun. It wasn't cold at all. It was the opposite of what people told me it would be."
From this, she extracts the lesson that will carry her from here: "When anyone tells me I can't do anything, why, I'm just not listening anymore."