Olympics 2020 is Giving Female Athletes Respect They Long Deserved
“Flo-Jo” won’t get out of my head.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the trials that led up to it, have been a ritual of replayed taped events, and the occasional, live event watched at sleep-deprivation hours.
Each female athlete’s performance, their achievements on the track and in life, has me mesmerized.
Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Olympic record in the 100 m, along with the triumphant medal sweep of her Jamaican teammates.
Allyson Felix, one of six mothers on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, deftly proving that motherhood definitely does coincide with top athletic performance.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson, coming off an injured Achilles tendon, then dropping to the track mid-stride with an injury to her other leg, and still, she insisted on crossing the finish line, well after everyone else finished.
So many laudable women.
And yet, “Flo-Jo” won’t get out of my head.
To younger generations, the name Florence Griffith-Joyner will soon garner increasingly less recognition. Video footage of her from the 1980′s is already often fuzzy, of a different era, not today’s high-definition clips.
But it’s Flo-Jo’s records that these other fabulous women are finally busting, three decades later. Flo-Jo’s sassy style that many of them are mirroring. And most importantly, there are the personal struggles, some of race and class similar to what she faced, that they now have the clarity, the support, to share.
Griffith-Joyner deserved the respect, the acknowledgment of human frailties that female athletes today are receiving in abundance.
Griffith-Joyner was hailed for her beauty, but never heralded as the GOAT.
Instead, she was accused of being a cheater. A sports writer correctly noted that an “invisible asterisk” would always accompany her name. The reason was that her records were so astounding, her acceleration toward the finish line so powerful, that people doubted it was a natural ability.
And she was boldly unique; often competing in one-legged bodysuits that she designed and with her hair, long nails and full-makeup perfectly done.
I saw her once in person. It was in Indianapolis, at the 1988 Olympic trials, site of her world record in the 100 m (10.49), a time that’s long been questioned as wind-aided, despite official rulings at the time that it was not. Generally, I’m not star struck, but I recall staring at her from a few feet away, enthralled.
She’d run for three golds and one silver at the Seoul Olympics, setting the Olympic record in the 100 m (10.62); a feat finally surpassed by Thompson-Herah who ran it in 10.61.
Griffith-Joyner never tested positive for drugs. But she retired just as random testing began, accelerating doubts about her achievements.
She died at 38 in 1998, of an epileptic seizure in her sleep, a tragedy that reignited the questions of her records. An autopsy found nothing in her system.
Some still claimed, without medical evidence, that the fatal condition was surely brought on by prior drug use. Family said it was a congenital issue, a lesion on her brain. She’d had seizures previously.
Another track athlete claimed, but never brought any proof forward, that he’d discussed performance-enhancing drugs with Griffith-Joyner and had sold her human growth hormone. He later had his own struggles with depression and a suicide attempt, which he thankfully lived through and then rebuilt his life.
The seventh of 11 children, Griffith-Joyner quit college and running at one point, working as a bank teller to help support the family.
Her stardom was multiplied by the fact that she was married to Olympic medalist Al Joyner; which made her the sister-in-law to track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee; all stellar athletes/coaches.
But the stain on her name would not wash out. I’ve long wondered what the whispers did to Griffith-Joyner’s spirit, her sense of self.
If we’re going to raise new generations of female athletes who are encouraged to voice their personal doubts and mental health difficulties to the world, the replies must become more substantial.
“You go girl!” is not going to cut it. Nor will a smile-inducing emoji. Or rapt attention, conciliatory support, offered only to female athletes at peak of performance levels.
As with any shift in societal norms, nothing changes overnight or without pushback. Simone Biles was initially labeled weak and selfish by some unenlightened souls after she pulled herself from Olympic competition. She schooled those folks, and many others to the physical dangers inherent with gymnastics.
Biles, in an interview while still in Tokyo, listed a few of the stellar people who had reached out to her in support; including Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Oprah.
Oprah isn’t going to be calling the high school female athlete who struggles with depression.
Positive support, outreach, a connection with a therapist, needs to be within the reach of all athletes, no matter their level. So many unhealthy behaviors, like eating disorders, are still strongly associated with women in sports.
There will be those who believe the open discussion about mental health and emoting about private struggles will cultivate a generation demanding of their participation ribbons. The opposite might come to pass.
We might just gain new generations of athletes of a range of abilities, legions of women as daring and assured off the track as they are on it.
©2021 Mary Sanchez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
Let me set the stage: There’s a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White... Read More
Let me set the stage: There’s a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House. Climate advocates have spent the last few years in the exile of a Republican Administration, one quarter drawing more and more attention to hurricanes and... Read More
Six years ago, my mother started to show signs of dementia. She would constantly lose personal items around the house... Read More
Six years ago, my mother started to show signs of dementia. She would constantly lose personal items around the house and often became confused in casual conversations. I wish that was the worst of it. Months later, she began to hallucinate that there was a boy... Read More
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” As we process the reach and devastation of Hurricane Ida, leaving dozens... Read More
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” As we process the reach and devastation of Hurricane Ida, leaving dozens dead and hundreds of thousands without power, Benjamin Franklin’s admonition about preparedness reads as if it could’ve been spoken yesterday. We know we live in a... Read More
The media instills fear (some of which is justified) in Americans every day over COVID-19. Yet it largely ignores another... Read More
The media instills fear (some of which is justified) in Americans every day over COVID-19. Yet it largely ignores another major health care scare nearly on par with the pandemic: going to the hospital. According to recent reporting by Axios, roughly two-thirds of Americans avoid needed health care... Read More
A decade ago the world seemed on track for a dark climate future. Global emissions were increasing at a rate... Read More
A decade ago the world seemed on track for a dark climate future. Global emissions were increasing at a rate of 3% per year, China was building a new coal plant every three days, and the idea that global emissions could double or even triple by... Read More
A rare feat has occurred in the nation’s capital. A bipartisan group of senators worked together to assemble significant infrastructure legislation... Read More
A rare feat has occurred in the nation’s capital. A bipartisan group of senators worked together to assemble significant infrastructure legislation that now has real viability. Let’s hope Congress can pull it off again regarding another pressing issue: the crippling lack of credit for far too many Americans. Our representatives have that... Read More