Throwback Thursday: A world record destined for purgatory?

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Florence Griffith Joyner at New York Madame Tussauds. Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr.

Never truly caught, but never truly cleared, Florence ‘Flo Jo’ Griffith Joyner still inspires adulation as well as suspicion 30 years on from her spectacular 100m and 200m world records.

In those 30 years, her record breaking 21.34 time over the longer sprint has led a largely unscathed life. US sprinter Marion Jones came closest in 1998 before she was caught doping, leaving current world champion Dafne Schippers as the nearest challenger for the record; a full 0.29 seconds behind with 21.63.

Even in the build-up to the 1988 Olympic 200m final, it was clear that the only athlete who could beat Flo Jo would be herself. The 28-year-old had already broken the world record earlier that day, storming to a 21.56 time in the semi-final to remain the undisputed favourite for gold.

Adding to her 100m victory and Olympic record just days earlier, 1988 saw Flo Jo almost transcend the physical possibilities that any female could reach. And once again, when the gun sounded for the 200m final on the 29th September, the Olympic 100m champion once again burst out of the blocks and with half the race left to go, simply switched up to her own special Flo Jo gear and flew off into the distance to seal her place in history.

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Once again the world was stunned by yet another unfathomable performance, with the 28-year-old’s husband and fellow athlete Al Joyner running over from trackside and lifting her up in his arms with triumph.

The 1984 Olympic triple jump champion had put in plenty of work with his wife so that she could achieve her dream, acting as her main coach after they tied the knot in 1987. Despite being an Olympic silver medalist, Flo Jo wasn’t on everyone’s radar when she returned to the sport in 1987 after three years out.

She certainly had all the makings of a star. Her distinctive competition attire consisting of a hooded full body top and later her ‘one-legger’ lycra suit already marked her out from the rest, while her long, colourful nails and free-flowing hair gave her a glamorous look.

The star appearance was there, the star name was there and soon enough, once the Olympics came along in ’88,  the international sprinter was now the greatest of all time and a bona fide sporting celebrity all within the space of a year.

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It was certainly the stuff of fairy-tales. But soon reality would kick in, the whole ‘within a year’ factor began to form huge question marks over how legitimate Flo-Jo’s world records really were.

The American’s drastic physical improvements were, for many, quite simply too good to be true. On the face of it, a 0.62 second improvement in the 200m within a year seemed extraordinary.

While many marvelled at Flo Jo’s achievement, there were and still are some who have leaned more towards the side of sport’s deadliest sin for an explanation of why the improvement was so quick.

Those skeptical of the achievement were also further swayed when the new Olympic champion officially announced her retirement from the sport 1989; the year that happened to see mandatory random drugs tests officially introduced.

From this moment on therefore, it was merely a case of faith. Nobody would ever truly know whether this miraculous improvement was the result of hard dedicated training or through the use of performance enhancing drugs.

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Believers could point to the fact that she had passed all of her 11 drugs tests in 1988, as the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission “performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her”, according to Chairman Alexandre de Mérode.

Aside from that, since its official birth in Seoul in 1988, it would seem the world record has been cast to sit in purgatory, not pure enough to be cast into the heavens, but not damnatory enough to be fully condemned.

Therefore, as this spectacular, sensational and simply untouchable world record turns 30 this week, it is perhaps down to the individual how they wish to remember it.

It could be seen as a blot on the sport’s record books, or lauded as the remarkable achievement of one very special human being.

The only certain aspect is that, barring a huge disturbance in the current sprint climate, it is a record that will not come close to being beaten any time soon.

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