Was Flo-Jo the world's fastest female or a cynical cheetah on two legs? Although she was dogged by rumour and innuendo throughout the final years of her tragically short life which ended at the age of 38 in 1998, the secret of how Florence Griffith-Joyner was transmogrified from also-ran into Olympic champion died with her. Only she and those in her immediate circle knew whether she truly was a wonder woman or a steroid-guzzling cheat whose heart gave out after years of drug abuse.
It was during the US trials for the Seoul Games on July 16 1988 that Flo-Jo emerged from relative obscurity to set a 100m world record of 10.49secs - 0.47secs faster than she had run in previous seasons - a mark no other athlete has since come close to challenging. With her flowing locks, flamboyant wardrobe and elongated "Stars and Stripes" fingernails, Flo-Jo was the sensation of the Olympics, beating her compatriot Evelyn Ashford by 0.3secs to win the 100m, obliterating the world record on her way to victory in the 200 and adding a third gold medal in the 4 x 100. What will she do next? we asked ourselves in wonderment even as Canadian Ben Johnson was being stripped of his 100m medal after being revealed as a fraud.
What she did next was to announce her retirement, coinciding with the news that mandatory drug testing would be introduced in 1989, as the whispers - suggesting her gold medals were tarnished with chemicals that had also dramatically altered her physique - reached a crescendo. "It's all fabrication and lies," Flo-Jo proclaimed. "I'd be a fool to take drugs." Although she insisted that she had decided to abdicate as queen of the track to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, the doubters' voices continued to be raised. In 1995 the then 200m world record holder Gwen Torrence was moved to say: "To me, those two records don't exist. Women sprinters are suffering because of what she did to the times in the 100 and 200."
Griffith-Joyner's death served to add fuel to the fires of controversy; the Orange County Coroner's Office in California conducted an intensive four-week investigation focusing upon various possible causes including steroid abuse, Lyme Disease (the result of being bitten by a hard-bodied tick), pesticide poisoning, allergies and even murder when a preliminary examination suggested she had been strangled.
The official verdict did little to prove or disprove Flo-Jo's insistence that she was "clean". Although it was revealed the athlete had died of asphyxiation brought on by an epileptic seizure - leading her friends and family to claim that the results had therefore cleared her of all allegations - the forensic pathologist concerned had been unable to test Griffith-Joyner's body for drugs, steroids or growth hormones after her death.
As Sheriff-Coroner spokesman Lieutenant Hector Rivera explained when he denied that the autopsy proved Griffith-Joyner had never used banned substances: "It was our job to determine the cause of death, and that's what we did," he said. It was also revealed that Chief Deputy Coroner Jacque Berndt had requested that the body be specifically tested for steroids only to be told that there was not enough urine in the athlete's bladder.
Even so, after the autopsy results were announced, her husband and coach Al Joyner: "She passed the ultimate drugs test. The one consistent thing about my wife was that she never dodged those questions about drug abuse, she never hid from anything. Where can they go from here? They can't argue with it." But argue they do. firstname.lastname@example.org