by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — Oh, Florence, be for real! Tell us that blazing world record in the 200 meters Thursday was yours and yours alone, that your magnificent sprinter’s body is all hard work and dedication, that when you crossed the finish line and waved your hands and beckoned to your husband, Al, to join you in glory, and he lifted you and swung you in his loving arms and the stadium roared with delight — tell us all that was genuine, real hero stuff, because the Olympics need that right now. In the worst way.

Here was a track victory that would have stunned any other Summer Games — a world record 21.56 in the semifinals, followed two hours later by another world record (21.34) in the final. How about platinum? What a race! But these, suddenly, are the Ben Johnson Games, where every fan is cynical and every athlete is suspect, and nasty steroid rumors popped up before Florence Griffith Joyner had even finished her victory lap.

“I don’t use drugs, I don’t know anybody who does and I think cheating should not be allowed,” the ever-forthright Griffith Joyner would say when asked about accusations by Brazilian runner Joaquim Cruz that she and sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee used steroids. “We’re investigating that charge. I don’t know why anyone would say that. I don’t even know him well.

“It hurt me, but I couldn’t let it bother me when I was running.”

What could bother her then? She runs faster than gossip, faster than evil thoughts, she runs, quite frankly, faster than any female on the planet. The 200, combined with her 100 meter- victory last weekend, makes her the only woman besides Wilma Rudolph ever to pull off that Olympic double. She came out of the curve Thursday as if teaching a clinic — “Follow me, girls. Do what I do. Legs high. That’s it!” — and she beat silver medalist Grace Jackson of Jamaica by nearly four-tenths of a second, which, track-and-field-wise, might as well be another neighborhood.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am with this world record,” she would say.
“I knew in the semifinals that I still had something left, even after setting the record. So in the final I just let it all out . . . “As for the drug charges, I don’t know why anyone would say that about me and Jackie. But I feel I am a true champion.”

Be for real. Please. Isn’t this a better story than a steroid witch hunt? Florence Griffith Joyner, 28 — “FloJo” they’re calling her — one of 11 children who grew up in a housing project in Watts. A working woman, who labored days in a bank through last year and trained on her lunch breaks and evening hours. An independent woman, whose self-designed track suits — colorful, one-legged, lacy or see-through — make even non-track aficionados blink. A headstrong woman, who would not cut her six-inch-long fingernails and was consequently left off an Olympic relay team in 1984. An independent woman, who split from long-time coach Bobby Kersee (Jackie’s husband) just months before the Games. A famous woman, whose world records and flashy dress landed her on the cover of Newsweek and dozens of other magazines just as all the world was peaking for the Olympics.

And a successful woman, perhaps too successful for some. After a silver medal in the 200 meters in 1984, she slipped, she gained weight, she was admittedly in semi-retirement as late as the fall of 1986. Yet within two years she is beating the world, and indeed, looking like a world-beater, with well-defined arms and legs that ripple when she runs.

“Wait a minute,” skeptics say. Were this another Olympics, she might be hailed as a magnificent physical specimen. But since Ben Johnson broke a world record, then broke the world’s heart — steroids, disqualified, his 100-meter gold medal taken away — the world is suspect. People look at photos of Johnson and say, “He never used to be that muscular. Look at that definition! We should have seen the steroids coming.”

And then they look at Griffith Joyner and say, “Ah ha! Let’s not be fooled again.”

Cruz, in a televised report, claimed Griffith Joyner was built like a man, and Joyner-Kersee resembled “an ape.” He credited steroids. Now, hold on. It is true that Griffith Joyner has burst to the forefront and smashed world records much the way Johnson did the last two years. It is also true that Johnson failed his drug test, while Griffith Joyner — and her sister-in-law
— so far, have passed all of theirs. Shouldn’t that count for something?

“I feel sorry for Ben,” said Griffith Joyner, “but cheating can’t be allowed. I’m glad they have more scientific methods to detect people who cheat.”

Does that sound like a steroid user? Here is a better scene: Al Joyner, a triple jumper who missed the Olympic team this time, screaming to his wife: “DEE DEE! YOU DID IT DEE DEE!” and charging out to the track for an embrace that was captured worldwide.

And another better scene: Al Joyner telling the TV cameras, “I knew she had the world record when she came around the turn.”

And another better scene: Al Joyner, hours after the race, sitting next to his wife, wearing her gold medal around his neck.

Is this the ’80s couple, or what?

“When I made the Olympics, Al made the Olympics as far as I’m concerned,” said Griffith Joyner. “He’s my trainer, my coach, my inspiration. I need that support.

“I run against him. He’s 6-foot-1. taller than any other runner I would have to face. So I tried to measure my strides against him. My goal is to beat him in training. Then I know I can beat anyone in a race.”

What about her sudden success? A lucky discovery, she says, that she was a short-distance sprinter, after thinking, as late as two years ago, that she was a 400-meter runner. Training at longer distances — she sprinted 700-meter runs constantly from November of ’87 until this summer — gave her strength in the shorter distances that seemed inexhaustible.

What about that physique? Credit her weight-lifting, she says; some close to her describe it as “fanatic.” Which is certainly better than “chemical.”

And what about her inspiration?

He was sitting right next to her.

“Al gave me his gold medal in 1984,” she said, looking over at him as he played with the gold around his neck. “When we go back home, I’ll have to give it back.”

Any more questions?

Go with the Flo. Flo with the Go. She is golden twice now — she may be golden twice more; the 4-by-100 and 4-by-400 relays — and if she inspires skepticism then she also inspires working women, married women, older women and forward-thinking women. What she has done on this Olympic Stadium track is simply eat it up and spit it out, and it shouldn’t have to be tainted with drug shadows. But these are the Ben Johnson Games, they always will be, and everything is up for question now.

Be for real, Florence. Tell us that smile, that spirit, and that speed — oh, Lord, that speed! — is something special within the human soul and it got there not from ingestion but from dedication. Give us that moment in your husband’s arms, happy as Christmas. Be honest, victorious and ungodly talented. Say it’s all so, Flo. Your timing, as usual, would be perfect. CUTLINE Florence Griffith Joyner crosses the finish line Thursday, setting a world record of 21.34 seconds in the 200-meter dash finals.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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