Sports

Shadows of doubt

JANE O’HARA October 5 1998
Sports

Shadows of doubt

JANE O’HARA October 5 1998

Shadows of doubt

Sports

Did drug use kill sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner?

She was fast and flashy, a babe, a blur, exactly what the world of track and field needed. After years of androgynous-looking East Germans, the Heikes and the Heidis, American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner brought a dash of glamor to a sport that was fast losing fans. When she showed up at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis in the summer of 1988, Griffith Joyner unveiled a one-legged bodysuit so formfitting it looked painted on. And there were those six-inch fingernails, more feline than feminine, and often colored red, white and blue. But if her looks turned heads, it was her sudden speed that raised eyebrows. In her career leading up to Indianapolis, Griffith Joyner was a world-class sprinter with routine results: her best 100-m race wasn’t even on the top-40 all-time list. But in the Olympic trials it was as if someone had set her on fast-forward. She won the semifinal in 10.49 seconds, a world-record time that has stood for a decade.

Two months later in Seoul, Flo-Jo won three gold medals and set a world record in the 200-m. By then, the buzz among track’s cognoscenti was unequivocal: Flo-Jo was on the juice. “I had seen her run in 1987,”

Mark Plaatjes, a world champion U.S. marathoner, said last week. “She was beautiful, she was sleek. A year later, it was this monster. You don’t do that just with weights.” What prompted Plaatjes’s comments was the news that Griffith Joyner, 38, had mysteriously died in her sleep in her California home. Ironically, that same day, Canada’s Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids in Seoul, was in a Toronto court fighting to have his lifetime ban overturned. The court denied his appeal, but his public reappearance and Griffith Joyner’s early death seemed eerily linked. And coming at the 10th anniversary of Johnson’s soiled Olympic run, Flo-Jo’s tragedy reopened the painful debate over performance-enhancing drugs. As a former Canadian track star, who admitted to taking

steroids, put it: “There’s going to be a lot of athletes sitting back and saying ‘Holy shit.’ ” Throughout her eight-year career, Griffith Joyner insisted she never took drugs. Nor did she ever test positive during a competition. But critics point out that Flo-Jo was never subjected to random, out-of-competition drug testing and quit the sport in 1989 just when she was set to cash in on her Olympic success. The reason, they say: she was scared off when the United States announced it was going to start random testing. That same year, Charlie Francis, Johnson’s coach, told the Dubin Inquiry that Griffith

Joyner’s record-setting runs were humanly impossible without drugs—although Francis plainly had a vested interest in saying so. And American runner Darrell Robinson told the German magazine Stern that he had bought HGH (human growth hormone) for Griffith Joyner leading up to the Seoul Olympics. Flo-Jo’s response: “Darrell, you are a compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic.”

Last week, the Orange County coroner’s office completed an autopsy on Griffith Joyner, but said it could take weeks to determine the cause of death. But some experts believe that even if Flo-Jo took banned substances, it may be difficult to show a clear cause and effect. “The chances are nil that there are any traces of those drugs left in her body tissue,” said Dr. Albert Fraser, a clinical-forensic toxicologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Although some studies show that steroids, hormones and other banned substances can cause heart, liver, circulatory, nerve and brain damage, others say that their underground use makes it impossible to scientifically track the dangers. “We can test steroids on animals,” said Victor Lachance, head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. “But there’s no way we can conduct that kind of research on humans. What we’re left with is anecdotal reportage.”

But some European doctors were willing to take the leap in Flo-Jo’s case. “This death was foreseeable,” said Werner Franke, a German molecular biologist and expert in drugs and sport. Added Dr. Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, a French sports physician and drug expert: “It is probable that she used drugs, but others, notably in East Germany, did the same. Other famous athletes are going to die and we will know it.”

Griffith Joyner’s death capped a summer when performance-enhancing substances were again headline news. Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin, a triple gold medallist at the Atlanta Olympics, was banned from international meets for four years. Slugger Mark McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, a testosterone booster banned by the International Olympic Committee but not by baseball. The Tour de France was interrupted by a drug scandal, and stories continue to surface from the former East Germany about the state-sponsored drug programs that produced an army of Olympic champions.

In a ghoulish coincidence, Flo-Jo appeared on North American television screens last week—a guest on the game show Hollywood Squares. She had pretaped the episodes weeks ago. There, she said she was looking forward to the publication of her book Running for Dummies. Although it is intended for rank amateurs, the book’s title could serve as an unintended warning to elite speedsters who seek fame and fortune from a bottle.

JANE O’HARA