Sporting: FloJo is Gone, but the Questions Aren't Forgotten

Florence Griffith Joyner was an exemplar of deep virtue and sensational contrivance, an American original within the fame-making foundations of an American century, at once a heroine of sports pages and supermarket tabloids. Even in death, she exercises over us a dramatic mystery, paragraphs of unresolved questions and a tortured riddle about the meaning of life.Florence Griffith Joyner has died, but the popular culture through which she emerged as one of our time's distinctive athletes has not. Griffith Joyner, a paragon of drive, fitness, glamour and controversy, died in her sleep on September 21 at age 38.The women's world-record holder in the 100 meters and 200 meters, a three-time gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Griffith Joyner came and went about as fast as she ran. We were awed by her style and substance as we were suspicious about her presence among the sprinting elite, which came at once very fast and very late.Circumstances surrounding her death evoked the questions that accompanied her rise in public life. At her finest hour, rumors swirled among the stars of track and field that Griffith Joyner could not have come so far so fast at the age of 28 if she weren't using some kind of banned substance, a steroid or a human growth hormone.Even her remarkable fashion sense fueled the controversy. She ran with brightly-painted, six-inch fingernails. She wore layers of makeup in competition. She designed her own one-legged running constumes in blaring colors, repleat with bikini briefs. She wore a different costume for each round of running. Each entrance raised eyebrows. Fast and flambouyant, stylish and speedy, Griffith Joyner caught our eye, then ran from sight.She combined contemporary notions of feminine beauty and fitness with tireless work and record-setting athletic achievement. She appealed to a public's unquenchable thirst for fleeting pop stardom rooted in glamor, achievement, drug scandal and sexual ambiguity. She cultivated the artificial symbols of feminity, some believed, to mask an artificially masculine physique.Colleagues reported that Griffith Joyner morphed before their very eyes in the months preceding the Seoul Olympics. Her face hardened and chiseled as her muscularity took on remarkable definition. A British writer says she arrived at the Seoul Olympics "with a voice as deep as Paul Robeson's singing Ol' Man River." From television distance, some wondered if she weren't fighting a mustache.Through 1987, Griffith Joyner had never run the 100 meters in less than 10.96 seconds, which didn't even make the all-time Top 40. At the 1988 Olympic trials, she flew to the world record of 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters, carving an unbelievable 0.27 seconds off the previous mark of 10.76 seconds set by Evelyn Ashford in 1984.At the 1988 Olympics, she broke the 200 meter world record twice in two hours, with a top mark of 21.34 seconds that smeared the previous record by 0.37 seconds. Even apart from steroid rumors, her performances were questioned. She set the record in the 100 amid talk of a faulty wind guage, which registered the following wind at 0.00 miles per hour. Her mark of 10.54 seconds in the Olympic 100 was wind-aided.Though Griffith Joyner never failed a drug test, the rumors persisted. She had sought training advice from Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who has twice since been busted for steroid use. Speaking in 1995, 200 meter champion Gwen Torrence said she did not acknowledge Griffith Joyner's records.In the September 27 edition of The New York Times, Ashford's former coach, Pat Connolly, said Griffith Joyner's sudden physical change ignited rumors that she must have found an East German coach. Athletes from the former East Germany are suing coaches for putting them on substances like human growth hormone, which has been linked to health problems. Connolly said a joke went around that Griffith Joyner would soon be speaking German.The International Olympic Committee insists that it performed every imaginable analysis on Griffith Joyner and found nothing. Yet, human growth hormone is undetectable by Olympic doping controls and European experts have maintained that such rapid improvements in her physique and performance are humanly impossible."These rumors may brew in barrells of sour grapes and envy," said Connolly in The Times, "but there also is evidence for objective folk who know that when something smells like fish it usually is fish."Griffith Joyner consistently denied the use of substances and even railed against their use by anyone. After those Olympics, she spoke of defending her titles at the 1992 games in Barcelona, perhaps even taking on the 400 meters or the marathon. But in February of 1989, on the eve of random out-of-competition drug testing, she stunned the track world by announcing her retirement. She later trained for a comeback in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but a troubling Achilles tendom made it impossible.It was all part of the Griffith Joyner aura. As the journalistic narration of celebrity so often has it, the telling of the Griffith Joyner story began in wonder, proceded to worship and wound around to cynicism.Two years ago, she suffered a seizure on a flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis. Her family did not disclose the ailment. On her death, the family reported a heart seizure as the cause. Since then, the family has retracted its account of heart seizure. Many experts believe an autopsy won't answer the question.It would be poetically just, some believe, if her heart went out, for her heart was larger than life. Griffith Joyner was an actress, an artist, a rigorous worker, a loving mother and an advocate for children. She was all we seek in humanity. Others see a more prosaic justice in heart failure, for her death at a young age is consistent with steroid abuse and the high price for dealing with the devil.If she used the substances and they caused her early death, we are troubled by questions. We are troubled just to ask if she used the substances and they caused her death. It is our condition to be torn between sympathy, curiosity and condemnation. It is, on one hand, inhumane to raise the questions on her death, when she can no longer defend herself; it is, on the other hand, inhuman not to.Decency requires that she rest in peace. Integrity requires that we seek the truth. But to some questions, there is no truth. Is it more worthy to live a long life of inconspicuous achievement, or a short life of spectacular meaning? We all must be free to make that choice. Griffith Joyner made hers. We don't know what she chose or if she received her wish. We know she can give no more. We should take no more. But we will. Somehow, one suspects, she always knew that.


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