Drug questions cloud memory, career of FloJo

Thursday, September 24, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Swift as she was, Florence Griffith Joyner never could outrun rumors. Her greatest triumphs were tarnished by allegation and innuendo. Her finest hours were spent under suspicion of steroids. In the absence of an authoritative autopsy report, the fastest woman in history goes to her grave as the subject of unsavory gossip.

Were FloJo's world records the product of intense training or creative chemistry? Did performance-enhancing drugs contribute to her premature passing, or was she cursed with some other form of human frailty? Did the Queen of the Sprints make a swap with Satan, trading her long-term health for the sake of astonishing short-term speed?

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We need good answers to these questions because there is too much at stake. There are too many young athletes looking for an edge to get them to the next level, unconcerned by the risks, heedless of the price to be paid. They see Mark McGwire knocking baseballs into oblivion and they empty the shelves of his testosterone supplement. They need to know what it is that they are doing.

Florence Griffith Joyner's death is a tragedy, but we need the whole truth, even if it is terrible. If it is not terrible -- if her speed and her death were both attributable to natural causes -- we need to know that FloJo earned all that she achieved.

Legal, but true?

Bob Kersee, her brother-in-law and long-time coach, stood on a makeshift stage Tuesday at UCLA and declared that none of the steroid allegations against Griffith Joyner were ever proven and that none of his athletes had ever failed a drug test. It was a legalistic denial worthy of the White House, and equally unsatisfying.

"People who are jealous have spread rumors," Kersee said. ". . .Unfortunately, it's come to a time where athletes and - or organizations play the game of tarnishing someone because if they can't beat them and it (affects) their endorsements and praise, they say, "If I can't beat you one way, I'll beat you the other way.' "

Long before Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was exposed as a steroid junkie, elite athletes were automatically suspicious of a rival who showed startling improvement in a short span, and openly contemptuous of testing programs. Johnson was not caught because he was guilty, cynics said, but because he was sloppy.

The circumstantial condemnation of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith at the 1996 Summer Games demonstrated a widespread rush to judgment, but it also indicated the level of distrust among world-class athletes.

Though Florence Griffith Joyner had won a silver medal in the 1984 Summer Games, she returned from a brief retirement four years later with a new layer of muscle and unprecedented movement. In running the 100 meters in 10.49 seconds at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she shaved more than a quarter of a second off the women's world record, and was immediately suspected of skulduggery.

"Florence Griffith Joyner, in 1984, you could see an extremely feminine person," said Brazilian distance runner Joaquim Cruz. "But today she looks more like a man than a woman. . . These people, they must be doing something that isn't normal to get all those muscles."

FloJo won three gold medals at the Summer Games in Seoul, and post-race tests failed to detect even the slightest evidence of banned substances. But U.S. sprinter Darrell Robinson sold a story to a German magazine in which he claimed to have bought banned growth hormones on FloJo's behalf.

"Darrell," Griffith Joyner replied, on NBC's Today show, "you are a compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic."

Based on the evidence presented to date, it would be difficult to convict Florence Griffith Joyner of anything illegal or improper. A jury of her peers, however, might not be easily persuaded.

"I think (her death) is a wake-up call," heptathlete Jane Fleming told the British Broadcasting Company. "There will be a lot of people running to their doctors today."

Some of them, presumably, can run quite fast.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.