Florence Griffith Joyner: Icon, Athlete, and The Fastest Woman in the World

Florence Griffith Joyner was a track and field  athlete who is still one of the fastest women to run. Elaine Thompson currently is the only athlete that has come close to her record. She was an icon and inspiration to many fans and athletes alike. Delorez Florence Griffith was born in 1959 in Watts area of Los Angeles. Although living in poverty she recalled her childhood years as joyous. Joyner stated “we did not know how poor we were; we were rich in family. ” She had eleven siblings all raised by her mother, who worked as a seamstress. That early support system was critical to her rise as an athlete.  Florence Griffith Joyner would become a popular figure of the 1980s due to spectacular athletic  performances and fashion style. Her popularity went beyond athletics when she got endorsements, did acting, and clothing design. Joyner became a part of American popular culture. This was important for women’s sports. Women who participated in athletics were never accepted as role models at this stage in history.Florence Griffith Joyner contributed to the positive shift in acceptance of the female athlete in the mainstream.

     Joyner’s journey into running began as child. As a young person she competed in races sponsored by Sugar Ray Robinson Foundation. From age 11 she would continue to run into her teenage years. She was so talented that she was able to receive a scholarship to California State University. There she would major in business. She would later graduate with a degree in psychology. There with the assistance of her coach Bob Kersee  Florence Griffith Joyner would be positioned to be an athletic champion. She won first place at the NCAA 400 meter race in 1983. It was clear she was going to rise to the top. Her Olympic debut could have been sooner, but she could not compete due to the US boycott of the Olympics in 1980. Joyner would come into the Olympics in 1984 winning a silver medal for the 200 meter race. Her performance was not as spectacular, but her fashion presentation and entertaining mannerisms captivated sports fans. Joyner had a interest in fashion and she felt that women’s track suits should be designed  to be aesthetic.  As a high school student she suggested that her teammates wear tights with their uniforms. The 1984 Olympics was a place in which she experimented with a different type of track uniform.

She was known for wearing one legged track suits and wearing jewelry while competing . Athletes tried to avoid wearing such accessories for fear that it might slow them down. This seem to be a myth, because it did not effect Joyner’s running speed.   Her track suits were bright and colorful. She designed them herself and it got her much attention. She was not just a pretty face. When she returned to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Florence Griffith Joyner would make history.

         Florence Griffith Joyner would win three gold medals and one silver in the 1988 Olympics. During the World Championships in 1987 she had already set records. This was an incredible comeback from the 1984 Olympics. Between 1985 and 1986 Joyner had not been running. She spent most her time working as a bank teller and hair stylist. She then realized that she missed running too much and returned to competition. This time she altered her training regimen. She began weight training to improve her performance. She mostly focused on squats and luges to build stronger leg muscles. Florence Griffith Joyner had to balance both her career and athletic pursuit. The reality of the Olympic athlete is that they do not make enormous amounts of money, unless they get endorsements. To many athletes competing in the Olympics is like an expensive hobby.

Florence Griffith Joyner had already acquired a nickname for her athletic feats among fans. Flo-Jo became a household name. Joyner would set a record making her the fastest woman in the world. She ran a 10:54 in the 100 meter final in the 1988 summer Olympics. The biggest and most impressive feat was her record of 10:49 in a 100 meter sprint. While fans cheered this world record, detractors were quick to make baseless accusations of steroid use or that her run time was assisted by wind. Darrell Robinson a track athlete made this accusation without any evidence. Another Olympic athlete Joaquim Cruz made this accusation claiming the change in Joyner’s physique. Her more muscular appearance came from a new training program and she never failed a drug test. This seems to be a problem with women athletes. When they perform well and appear strong they are accused of performance enhancing drug use. Even by the 1980s there were still people who did not fully accept women in sport.

Even though she never failed a drug test and there was not any proof of these accusations, the statements still persisted. Alexandre de Merode head of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission revealed that Joyner was singled out for extra testing due to the rumors circulating in 1988. This was obviously unfair considering East Germany had a state sponsored doping program and it was rare that their athletes were singled out for more drug testing. Despite this negativity, Florence Griffith Joyner continued to perform under these harsh rumors. Her most popular aphorism was “when anyone tells me I can’t do anything I  I’m just not listening anymore .” This attitude was a way of persevering in the face of negative criticism and dealing with hostility from racism and sexism in the United States.

        Florence Griffith Joyner was and continues to be an important icon. The reason is she demonstrated that a woman in athletics could be powerful and show grace. Her journey was the positive results of Title IX and the civil rights movement. African American athletes were being integrated into the sports world and America began to accept them. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph,  Althea Gibson, and Alice Coachman opened the door for African American athletes. Florence Griffith Joyner became an African American icon, inspiring women of various backgrounds. She was involved in women’s cause stating “It’s important women  to see women make strides.” Joyner also expounded further remarking ” women need to be in control of their lives and feel good about themselves.” This confident personality radiated and captivated female fans. She inspired women to get into running and made it fashionable. Florence Griffith Joyner became a celebrity eventually working as a model, doing acting, and endorsed various products.

After her retirement from racing in 1989, she embarked on numerous ventures. She started the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation, continued to design clothing, and ran a nail kit company. By 1995 she was also the co-chair on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Once again she wanted to compete again and in 1996 wanted to compete in the 400 meter run. Unfortunately tendinitis in her right leg stopped her from competing. Although she did not appear in athletics, Joyner did have acting roles. She appeared in Santa Barbara in 1992. Her influence was extensive in the sports world.

35e07745d6754d5c1c85959c6bb80918  Florence Griffith Joyner was such a popular athlete that LJN Toys produced dolls of her likeness. Normally this was reserved for popular cartoon shows or other properties, but a prominent female athlete was getting this treatment. Her media appearances and athletic talent did so much for the promotion of women in sports. Joyner’s talents were recognized and praise during her lifetime. She was inducted into USA track and Field Hall of Fame in 1995. Her life was cut short by a seizure she had in her sleep in 1998. This was caused by cavernous hemangioma in which a collection of  dilated blood vessels form a tumor. This causes seizures, which Joyner had been getting treatment for in 1993 and 1994. Although she only lived 38 years, her impact will be everlasting. The flashy outfits, the amazing athletic performances, and charm made her unique. Women track athletes are no longer considered an anomaly. Florence Griffith Joyner’s efforts contributed to the acceptance of women’s sports in the mainstream and motivated a new generation of runners who would emerge in the 21st century.

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Florence Griffith Joyner: Icon, Athlete, and The Fastest Woman in the World

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