SEOUL, South Korea — She bounced along the track, arm in arm with her husband, holding an American flag. They bowed to the crowd, their smiles as big as the Olympics themselves, and then Bobby Kersee pushed his wife out on her own — “Go on! Go! Take the lap!” — because, after all, she had done it herself.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose name is becoming household — synonymous with achievement, dedication, gold — defined herself all over again Wednesday night, becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the long jump.
And about an hour later, Joyner-Kersee’s sister-in-law, Florence Griffith Joyner, set a world record of 21.56 in the first heat of the semifinals of the 200 meters. The finals were to be run early this morning. The previous mark of 21.71 was held by Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler, both of East Germany.
Joyner-Kersee’s winning leap was 24 feet, 3 1/2 inches, an Olympic record
— which came on her fifth jump out of six, breaking her mark set last week in the heptathlon — in a battle that patriots might have nicknamed “Jackie vs. The Eastern Bloc.” Joyner surpassed East Germany’s Drechsler (23-8, good for the silver medal) and the Soviet Union’s Galina Chistyakova (23-3 1/4 for the bronze). It was the culmination of Joyner-Kersee’s 1988 Olympics, in which she had been a heavy favorite.
“I feel really good,” she said afterward. “Now I can relax. That’s all I’m going to do. Relax.”
Understandable, for this was a difficult competition. Three women had traded the world record in this event over the last few years, and their showdown was billed as one of the premiere field events in these Olympic Games. Joyner-Kersee had already won a gold in the heptathlon, setting a world record in the process. But for a while Wednesday, it seemed she would have to settle for silver in the jump.
Chistyakova’s leap stood for two rounds as the best, until Drechsler outdid it with a 23-6 3/4 effort on her third try. Joyner uncorked a similarly good jump that round, but was three-quarters of an inch shy of Drechsler, and she stayed in second place until the fifth attempt.
Then, with the skies clear-blue and her husband/coach cheering her on, Joyner-Kersee came down the runway with excellent speed, got good lift, and soared over the pit. She landed in the sand to a roar from the Olympic Stadium crowd. When her numbers flashed — “A NEW OLYMPIC RECORD . . .” the announcer bellowed — she lept in the air, knowing the others would have to beat her now.
Drechsler would come up short on her last attempt. So would Chistyakova.
“You did it!” screamed Bobby Kersee, as Joyner-Kersee readied for her sixth and final attempt. “Now go for the world record (24-8 1/4, held by Chistyakova) on the next one! Let them chase you. You’ve got that world record within you, so let it out!”
She tried, got a good jump, but it was called foul and never measured. Joyner-Kersee got up, wiped the sand from her suit, and waved to the crowd.
“When I was behind, I couldn’t think about the world record,” she said. “I just wanted consistency. Actually, this was only my third long jump competiton of the season.”
No record. No big deal. She didn’t need to own the world on this day. It was enough to have beaten it.